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News today that the musician Levon Helm has died. He was a key figure in the '60s and '70s rock group called, simply, The Band. Helm orchestrated a return to the fundamentals of rock 'n' roll at a time when many artists had moved to the experimental fringes.

The 71-year-old drummer and vocalist died this afternoon at a New York hospital, of throat cancer. NPR's Felix Contreras has this remembrance.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Levon Helm was born in a part of the country where bluegrass, gospel, country music and the blues all combined to create the DNA of rock 'n' roll. And you could hear all that in Levon Helm's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WEIGHT")

LEVON HELM: (Singing) I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half-past dead. I just needed someplace where I can lay my head. Hey, mister, can you tell me...

CONTRERAS: Helm told NPR in 2006 that it was the radio that brought all that music to his home in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

HELM: The closest big town, of course, for me was Memphis. So we had that Memphis radio, and we had KFFA in Helena, which had the King Biscuit Show. We had a great mix of music right there - good music and good food.

CONTRERAS: And that good eating undoubtedly fueled the informal jam sessions where folk songs were passed around like plates of food, as he explained to WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

HELM: I remember one night, they had one at my uncle's house. I had a big grocery box, pasteboard box, and I beat that thing to death that night. I was a - I volunteered to play percussion.

CONTRERAS: He left Arkansas right out of high school to play drums with country and blues singer Ronnie Hawkins. They traveled to Canada, where they recruited a group of like-minded musicians that called themselves The Hawks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE HAWKS: (Singing) When she says her last goodbye, oh, you're going to hang your head and cry. What'cha gonna do when your baby leaves you? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do?

CONTRERAS: Eventually, Hawkins' backup musicians struck out on their own, bucking the 1960s trends of psychodelia in favor of a rootsier take on rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN")

HELM: (Singing) The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing. The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing. They went na, la-la-la-la na, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la la...

WILL HERMES: It was a profound right turn, in a way, in popular music.

CONTRERAS: Will Hermes is the author of the recent book "Love Goes to Buildings On Fire," and a senior critic for Rolling Stone magazine. He says the musician's choice of the name The Band reflected their musical philosophy.

HERMES: The Band really dug into those roots of country music, the roots of blues, the roots of rockabilly. And Levon Helm was right at the crux of that.

CONTRERAS: After only eight years, The Band parted ways over personal and financial differences. Helm, and guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, were at odds over royalties. The drummer pursued a solo career, wrote an autobiography, and acted in over 10 films. Then, in 1997, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After 28 radiation treatments, the cancer seemed to be gone - but so was his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

HELM: 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. Singing and playing, of course, you miss. But the laughing and talking, you just can't hardly live without.

HERMES: He really made a comeback to the point that he was touring and playing big venues.

CONTRERAS: Again, writer Will Hermes.

HERMES: And in some ways getting the individual recognition, apart from Bob Dylan, apart from The Band, that he didn't have earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR OLD DIRT FARMER")

HELM: (Singing) Oh, the poor old dirt farmer, he's lost his corn. And now where's the money to pay off his loan?

CONTRERAS: Levon Helm's 2007 album "Dirt Farmer" won a Grammy for best traditional folk album. Two more Grammys followed, along with praise from both critics and fans for music that sounded a lot like the songs he heard as a youngster in Arkansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

HELM: Music is such a powerful thing. And as people are living their lives, the songs that aid and comfort us all are - you know, they mean a lot to us when we live through those times. And I was only fortunate enough to be around and enjoying some of the music.

CONTRERAS: Just before Levon Helm died, he and former bandmate Robbie Robertson seemed to have patched up their differences. After spending an afternoon with Helm, Robertson wrote on his Facebook page: Levon is one of the most extraordinary, talented people I have ever known, and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time, and will miss him and love him forever.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDE RIVER TO CROSS")

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