Singing drummer Levon Helm, who died April 19 at age 71, enjoyed one of the more glorious second acts in American music. As heartbeat and frequent lead vocalist in the Band, the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer (and sole Southerner in a group whose sound was fundamentally rooted in the region) laid the foundation for all subsequent “Americana” groups. Diagnosed with cancer in the ’90s, Helm fought back, and in 2005 began to invite guest musicians and fans into his barn studio for cozy Midnight Ramble events that became Mecca for roots-music aficionados and helped the proprietor pay his all-American medical bills.
THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT TRACKS
1. The Band – “The Weight” (1968)
This Music From Big Pink afterthought would become one of songwriter Robbie Robertson’s most covered tunes. Although Richard Manuel was singing nearly all of the group’s material at the time, Helm stepped forward to drawl the first three verses of this surreal Old Testament saga of a traveler who, while making his way to Nazareth, Pennsylvania (home of Martin Guitars), is besieged by a motley assortment of archetypal figures asking for favors.
2. The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969)
Virgil Caine was Helm’s name on this pounding Civil War allegory about a Confederate survivor of a Union attack on Virginia’s railroads. In a voice overcome with grief, rebellion, and resolve all at once, Helm movingly evoked the contradictory passions behind America’s cresting counterculture. His military drum rolls emphasized a nation still at war with itself a century after the richly detailed events recounted in this highlight from the Band’s eponymous second album.
3. The Band – “Up on Cripple Creek” (1969)
Opening with a funky shuffle the Meters might have envied (and that Gang Starr sampled for Step in the Arena’s “Beyond Comprehension”), the other “afterthought” of the Band’s second album turned out to be the group’s first and only Top 30 single. Helm is charmingly roguish as a hard-drinking mountain man visiting his mistress Bessie in Louisiana. The honey can’t help but drip when he sings: “There’s one thing in the whole wide world, I sure would like to see / That’s when that little love of mine dips her doughnut in my tea.”
4. The Band – “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)
The best song about life on the road ever writ? Bob Dylan evoked the homesickness of countless itinerants in this Technicolor road movie compressed into a four-minute tune. “Someday everything is gonna sound like a rap-so-dee,” sings Helm in a paean to homesickness inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Accompanied by Garth Hudson’s French accordion, Helm’s redneck yawp makes allusions to “a purdy little girl from Greece” all the more touching.
5. The Band – “Ophelia” (1978)
Indebted more to Minnie Pearl than to Hamlet, Robbie Robertson’s Dixieland paean to a gal on the run first appeared on the Band’s last great studio album, the Louisiana-flavored Northern Lights – Southern Cross. Three years later, Levon knocked it out of the park with rollicking horn accompaniment during The Last Waltz.