The Band's Levon Helm, Making Music Again

Drummer Levon Helm of The Band survived throat cancer and is making music again — at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. This time around, the public is invited.

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Levon Helm has been playing music since he was a child. As soon as he graduated from high school he hit the road with fellow Arkansan Ronny Hawkins. They picked up a few Canadian musicians along the way. That band became The Band. Mr. Helm and those players went on to back up Bob Dylan and record the 1968 album Music from Big Pink in their Woodstock, New York home. After eight years, The Band broke up, Levon Helm tried his hand at acting, recorded several solo albums.

He still lives in Woodstock and he's still making music at his home, only now the public is invited for weekend shows about once a month. Karen Michel went and found that the road home hasn't always been easy for Levon Helm.

KAREN MICHEL reporting:

Every couple of weeks or so, about a hundred people come to hear Levon Helm sing, play and bring back memories.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, welcome to Woodstock.

MICHEL: They come from England, Detroit, and as close as the local fire department. They get in free.

Unidentified Woman: There is security up there. They will be checking.

MICHEL: The security guys where black hoodies with crossed white drumsticks on the back, surrounded by the words Helmland Security. Two bands go on before the headliner, but it's Helm everybody is here to see.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Rambles, that's what Levon Helm calls the evenings of music that extends into the early mornings. The name implies a meandering or taking the long way home. You could say is symbolic, but then you'd be taking a good time much too seriously.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. LEVON HELM (Musician): (Singing) I don't know why I love you like I do after all them changes you put me through. You stole my money and my cigarettes, and I ain't seen a hide nor hair of you yet.

MICHEL: The name comes from Helm's childhood in rural Arkansas.

Mr. HELM: The Midnight Ramble goes back to the old tent shows that used to come through south Arkansas back in the '50s and '60s. They had tent shows. Silas Green from New Orleans was a good one. And of course my favorite was the WS Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels. It was actually FS Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels, but F doesn't sang as good as W, so we changed that around a little bit.

MICHEL: The we is The Band. You remember the song.

(Soundbite of song)

THE BAND (Rock Band): (Singing) When your arms are empty, got nowhere to go, come on out and catch the show. There'll be saints and sinners, you'll see losers and winners, all kinds of people you might want to know. Once you get it, you can't forget it at W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.

Mr. HELM: At the end of the show, the announcer, the master of ceremonies would come out and would announce that there was going to be a traditional Midnight Ramble Show. That's where you got a little bit of a hoochie coochie dance out of one of the dancers and, you know, some of the more colorful jokes. The Midnight Ramble was the spicier part of the night, so we kind of named it after that and it's sounds good.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HELM: (Singing) Well, if you sang a song, you know the riff from the rhythm. And you march right along, yeah, to the beat of that drum.

MICHEL: For the most part, if it's The Band you come to The Rambles to hear, you'll be disappointed.

Ms. AMY HELMS (Daughter of Levon Helms): To me, The Band was Rick Danko's band...

MICHEL: Helm's daughter, Amy.

Ms. HELM: ...because the only song that I knew and the only one that I really - the song that was my song, you know, the one I really dug was Stage Fright. And Rick sang that, so that was my association. So in my mind, my dad was Rick Danko's drummer, which I thought was really cool.

MICHEL: Now, Amy is Levon Helm's back up singer. She's also in the band, Ollabelle. The Band split up after that famously filmed Last Waltz. Richard Manuel committed suicide. Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999. And by then the rest weren't speaking to each other. Levon Helm couldn't speak. Period.

Mr. HELM: Well, you know, I had throat cancer and I had to have radiation treatments, and I couldn't sing for a long time; and this was in '97, I had 28 radiation treatments. I didn't die, thank God. And I started getting some of my voice back and I finally got to the point where I could laugh and talk. And boy, the singing and playing, of course, you miss, but the laughing and talking you just can't hardly live without.

And once I got some of my laughter back I started getting so I can sing harmony parts with my daughter. And Amy had the patience to help me get my voice back. And the Rambles was a good way to have that stage for this kind of an experiment. That way, if my voice played out it wouldn't matter because, you know, we're right here at home.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HELMS: (Singing) There are some things that I may not know. And there are some places that I cannot go. But there's one thing, one thing I know, God's love is real for I can feel His love in my soul.

MICHEL: It's not quite the same voice; it's stronger, rangier than before. But even before he started singing again, Levon Helm was drumming, though like his voice, that's changed too.

Mr. HELM: Before, I used to play it with a traditional grip where you hold your stick in your left hand, sort of in your fingers. And your right hand, you hold like you would hold a mallet. And since then I turned around my left stick and I hold them both in a mallet-style grip now. So it just makes my left hand not as busy.

MICHEL: So not as busy that he now sheaths that hand in a black leather glove. Helms still has his signature crab-like posture. And he whomps the drums with that gloved left hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELM: Yeah, there's nothing any more fun than beating on those drums.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HELM: (Singing) They told me rock and roll is gone, a fade away. Everybody knows rock and roll is here to stay. And I don't want to, I love my rock and roll soup.

MICHEL: The Rambles are a good time. For many who come it's a pilgrimage to the Woodstock of the mind, the times of Patchouli oil past. You won't smell Patchouli or that other P much here. The odor that permeates The Rambles is popcorn. One of the first props Helm bought for his medicine show was a giant wheel popcorn machine.

Larry Campbell has been playing the Rambles for the past year or so, guitar, mandolin, violin. Before that he spent nine years touring with Bob Dylan.

Mr. LARRY CAMPBELL (Musician): Doing this thing with Levon definitely for me harks back to that era, you know, that time. And there's a real purity to it that fits into my idea of that idealism back then. And I hope other people are getting that, too.

MICHEL: They do. And Levon Helm aims to keep that spirit around.

Mr. HELM: You know, I don't think about it so much. I just, you know, hope that I can hit it again when it comes time. I'm so glad to have what little I've got that, you know, I'm not going to knock it.

MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HELM: (Singing) Oh, yes, God is real. For I can feel is love in my soul.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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