I could write a book about the influence this man has had on my life, and our life as a band. The unmistakable feel he placed in a groove, the subtle flourishes he pulled out of that dry snare drum, the earthy quality and raw power of his voice, his epic charisma as a performer; they’re all aspects of his music that have been transformed into goals within our own musical practice, and are simultaneously things he will be remembered for forever. However, the influence of his character has been just as deep for us. He set an example as a humble leader, and an endlessly appreciative member of a group of musical giants. He also outwardly expressed an attitude that seemed unique to rock music: a shameless acceptance and appreciation for the traditions and generations that preceded him.
Though none of us ever had the chance to meet him or play music with him, we’ve absorbed so much of his character through countless interviews, concert videos, documentaries, books and his amazing autobiography. He truly was the leader of The Band. He expressed genuine care and appreciation for his fellow band mates, and viewed each one’s contributions as an equally vital part of the engine. This is an attitude we have held close to our hearts over the last 6 years of this band, and made it our guiding light.
Like many people of my generation, I was introduced to Levon Helm’s music by my parents at an age in which I wasn’t so concerned with measuring art by its cultural significance. I was very much taken by the popular music of the 90s, which provided a divide typically longed for by every adolescent; a break from from my parents’ influence on my social and aesthetic interests. The music of The Band was the opposite. Embedded within their music, lyrics and album artwork were countless nods to tradition, history and a shameless display of ancestral awareness. It was specifically Levon that shattered my family’s own generational wall with his performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from the Last Waltz, as we were gathered in the living room for movie night. Its hard to put one’s finger on exactly what it was about Levon that made him able to reach over the generation gap and grab each of my siblings and I by the ear. That’s simply the power this man possessed, and the gift he shared with the world.
Levon Helm was well beyond just being our favorite member of The Band, or our favorite singing drummer, or the first musician that ever planted the possibility of doing both in my mind. He was, and continues to be, the most important American cultural icon. He represented something that each member of my family was able to share together, at any given stage in life. Whether he meant to or not, he gave us an understanding of who we were and where we’d come from, and reminded us of the importance of community, family and friendship. May his music and his legacy continue to ripple through future generations for decades to come. Thank you Levon.