Growing up a mere 45 minutes north of the famed Big Pink, I always felt proud of the fact that The Band chose to make my neck of the woods their home away from home. Levon Helm even loved it enough to make it his permanent home- when The Band days were over, he moved into “The Barn” in Woodstock that would become the venue for his notorious Midnight Rambles. Needless to say, my heart melted when I came across this video last winter that Levon filmed for the Ulster County Tourism Board. He sings the praises of the Hudson River Valley so earnestly and whole-heartedly that it makes me want to move back to my hometown and stay there forever. Levon loved the area not only because of its remarkable beauty and friendly residents, but because it was an environment in which he felt at home making music. And with Levon, more so than with any other musician I can think of, it has always been completely about the music.
When Bob Dylan sings “strap yourself to the tree with roots” in the song “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (recorded with The Band on The Basement Tapes in 1967), I like to think that no human was a better embodiment of that deeply-rooted tree than Levon Helm. At a time when psychedelic rebellion was taking over music, Levon remained unconcerned with what was considered hip, and proceeded to create raw, soulful music that was a perfect cocktail of tradition and innovation.
I still remember my first time watching The Last Waltz, and having an instant connection to Levon (and to Rick Danko, but my love for him will be saved for another time). Seeing Levon’s sly smile as he hunched his shoulders and howled along to “Up On Cripple Creek” was simply amazing. He didn’t have that “look at me, I’m a jaded rock star” vibe to him that so many other musicians were thriving on at the time- instead he had an air of complete genuineness and accessibility. No excess, no strange costumes, no beads or bangles or feathers or neon colors. Just him, in his jeans and button down, completely destroying his drum kit while simultaneously providing powerful lead vocals. Painfully cool.
Levon helped The Band bring the genre of Americana to a whole new level of significance, and by rejecting the counterculture scene he ironically became one of the most unique artists of the era. He had no desire to buy into any fad or cultivate any image; he put all the focus on the music and stayed authentic, while still pushing and expanding the boundaries of his creativity. The result was his beautifully unique signature sound, a blend of rootsy americana and cajun-folk funk, that will live on forever.