HomeMusicLevon Helm: 1940-2012

Levon Helm: 1940-2012

brent johnson remembers the soulful singer and fluid drummer for Rock & Roll Hall of Famers The Band …


Forget American Idol.

Singing is about more than hitting notes and flashing range. It’s also about interpreting the true meaning of lyrics and embodying a character.

So, behold Levon Helm.

The drummer for immensely influential rockers The Band — who died today from throat cancer at 71 — lent gentle gravitas to everything he sang. Just listen to ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie,’ maybe the group’s most iconic song. The track — from their classic self-titled 1969 sophomore album — is about a grizzled Confederate soldier named Virgil Caine, who watched his family die and his homeland overtaken by armies in the wretched wheels of the Civil War.


The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, actually wrote the song. And Joan Baez later brought her own version to the Top 5. But it’s Helm — the son of Arkansas cotton farmers — who makes it breathe. He is Virgil Caine. You can hear the fear, the vulnerability, the tiredness in his voice. And that’s the best compliment you can give a singer.

Then there’s his drumming. Like another underrated sticksmith — Ringo Starr — Helm was a fluid drummer who prettied up songs with lyrical fills and clever offbeats. Check out his work on ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ or even the sessions he did with Rufus Wainwright later in life.


The Band never had a massive hit single. They never sold troves of albums. But they influenced everyone from Elton John to Elvis Costello. They brought roots rock back to music after the Summer of Love grew excessive. And while Robertson penned most of The Band’s tunes, and while bassist Rick Danko and keyboardist Richard Manuel sang in lovelier voices, Levon Helm was the soul of it all.

He’ll be sorely missed.



  1. Robbie actually said he wrote dixie down for levon. Hey I was in a band at the time with the future john doe and we worshipped those guys.

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