There is a famous Jerome Kern line about Irving Berlin: Berlin, Kern said, “has no place in American music—he is American music.” You could say something similar about Levon Helm, who died yesterday at age 71. Helm was Americana music. He began his career as an Elvis-besotted rock ‘n’ roller, but he came into his own as the drummer and lead singer of The Band, the great ’60s-’70s ensemble whose blend of gospel, blues, parlor song, and other homespun styles looked back to a time before Elvis, before Berlin—to a mythic yesteryear that was largely the creation of American folksong in the first place.
Helm embodied the sound and spirit of Americana music as well as anyone: from The Band’s brilliant late-’60s albums, to his playing on Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, to The Midnight Ramble, the star-studded hoedowns he hosted over the last decade at “The Barn,” his home and studio in Woodstock, N.Y., Helm devoted his life to roots music. Today “Americana” is a genre that takes in everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Carolina Chocolate Drops to alt-country troubadours to the hordes of bearded young folkies who vie for indie rock stardom. All of them are patently—many of them audibly—in Helm’s debt.
Helm’s trick was to make costume drama feel like documentary. Take “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from The Band’s glorious self-titled LP. Top to bottom, it’s an ersatz exercise. It’s a Civil War song, sung in the voice of a Confederate soldier—but it was written by a Canadian, Helm’s bandmate, Robbie Robertson. It mangles the facts; as history, it flunks. And yet it feels just right. It sounds for all the world like a song written in Dixie in 1865, not Woodstock in 1969.
That triumph is largely Helm’s. His drumming is at once loose and meticulous. It’s also dramatic: Listen to his sweeping drum rolls in the song’s chorus, a flourish that evokes the song’s martial theme and drives home its pathos. (The critic Jon Carroll once called Helm “the only drummer who can make you cry.”) And then there’s Helm’s singing. His voice is craggy, tender, emphatic. It’s a tangy regional sound: Helm was from the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas, and you can hear Dixie in his voice. Helm was just 29 when The Band recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but he sounds as old as the hills—he sounds like a ghost. He’ll haunt us as long as we have ears.