A Lifetime With Levon
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Despite being a rock icon, Grammy winner, and an actor (he plays Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, among other roles), Levon was a country boy at heart, modestly calling himself “just a musician.” Though he had many close friends from the music and movie worlds — Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jane Fonda, and Tommy Lee Jones to name a few — he made time for so many other “regular folks” throughout his life. Mary says he had “charm but no conceit,” always greeting acquaintances like old friends. When asked if he remembered them, he’d assure them he most certainly did, and then whisper, “Now, who’s that, Mary?” when they were alone.
He loved being on the road and the stories were endless. When speaking of movie sets in particular, he recollected he would have liked bigger trailers so more people could have gathered together and laughed into the night. He loved to eat with a passion, especially Southern cooking washed down with copious amounts of Coke, though he always remained rail thin. After his gigs he loved nothing better than having people back to his room bringing home-cooked food, with Mary furnishing his favorite mandarin orange cake whenever he was in the Memphis area. He and his nearest and dearest would regale themselves with an endless repertoire of funny stories, and according to Philip Vaiden, Mary’s husband, they told the same ones over and over and over again.
A favorite childhood tale was the time when the Helms and Cavettes took cover in the shared storm cellar their Dads had dug. They were in and out of that cellar many times over the years for false alarms, until one day a real live cyclone came roaring down the Delta. All ten of them stayed three days, until finally Arlena got fed up and said, “We are leaving this cellar and never coming back!” She kept her word, because they never did.
Levon’s life was his own. He got the most from every day and he was fun, often frivolous, and could be exasperating because he did exactly what he wanted and didn’t take things seriously. In fact, according to Mary, Levon Helm “gave new meaning to the term happy-go-lucky,” but at the same time he was genuine and intensely loyal.
He was very grateful for his life, especially because at the end of it, he said, God gave him an extra 12 years after a first bout with throat cancer to make an incredible comeback. In that time he was able to sing with his beloved daughter Amy, haul himself out of debt, hit the road again with his new band, The Dirt Farmers, and win more awards for his music.
When home in the musical community of Woodstock, New York, Helm loved to host “Midnight Ramble” sessions, intimate Saturday night concerts in his studio, known as The Barn. Paul LaRaia put together a photographic tribute book in 2009 called The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble. In the foreword, Levon wrote that “if you want to know what makes a Midnight Ramble so special, the answer’s simple. We just kind of let it be what it wants to be.” He believed he was reviving the spirit of the old-time music shows of his childhood.
Helm has been called “the godfather of Americana music” and characterized as an unpretentious famous figure — unquestionably an international celebrity while remaining a precocious farm boy from the Delta. He was proud of the musical giants that came from his part of the world, including Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Bo Diddley, as well as Elvis, of course.
Larry Campbell, who toured regularly with Helm in his later years, calls his friend a national treasure, observing that “from blues to bluegrass, from Memphis soul to Nashville country, from gospel to rock-and-roll, his was the voice that could deliver the essence of any category of American roots music with complete authority.”
Levon Helm, of course, had fans all over the world, not the least of whom was superstar Elton John, whose 1971 hit song “Levon” was a tribute to his friend. In fact, if you saw the Grammys last month, Elton John and Mumford & Sons hit the stage to pay tribute to Helm, and there was a performance of "The Weight" at the ceremony.
To Mary Vaiden, Helm was simply her best friend for over 70 years. As the one-year anniversary of his death approaches, she misses him terribly. She adds, “Life took us cotton patch childen in different directions but we always remained in close contact. Levon was the dearest and truest of friends, and it was a privilege to be part of his life.”