A Lifetime With Levon
Mary Vaiden with her neice, Christy Davidson, and Levon Helm in their hometown of Marvell, Arkansas.
This story begins in the 1940s with two children living on a dirt road amidst cotton fields in the tiny Delta town of Marvell, Arkansas, not far from Helena. One of these children was Levon Helm, who became the world-famous drummer and vocalist for The Band. Can there be a baby boomer alive who doesn’t recall the opening lines of The Band’s signature anthem, “The Weight”, from the Music from Big Pink album (1968):
Then there’s “Up on Cripple Creek" (1969) from The Band’s second album, called simply The Band. It was written by all members with drummer Helm singing lead vocal. Helm specialized in storytelling songs sung in his raspy, Arkansas drawl and a performance of this song is featured in The Band's live concert film from 1978, The Last Waltz, a documentary filmed and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Now to return to that other child on the same dirt road. Her name is Mary Cavette Vaiden, Levon’s lifelong best friend, who was at his side just about a year ago — last April 19th — when he died in New York City at the age of 71. Levon hadn’t wanted Mary to come at first because he didn’t want her to worry, but of course she went anyway. She later joined several thousand other mourners at his famed Woodstock Barn in upstate New York to pay tribute to the person The New York Times headlined “a musical son of the South.” The article went on to call Helm’s music “a timeless blend of American musical forms drifting back far into the nation’s rural past.”
Mary had left the Delta at 18 to find job opportunities in Memphis and wound up with a 43-year career at the Racquet Club, formerly the Memphis Athletic Club. As a senior executive, she was instrumental in helping transform the new facility into a venue for major tennis tournaments. At around the same time, Levon took off to Canada with local Arkansas celebrity, Ronnie Hawkins, and began his amazing musical career. The rest is history, and no one from Marvell was too surprised when Levon grabbed the brass ring and turned into a big star on the cover of Time magazine. Yet he always kept in touch with his people back home. No matter where Levon was in the world, no matter what the gig, he was in regular telephone contact with Mary. There were shared memories and witticisms . . . and a lot of laughter.
The Cavettes and the Helms were longtime Delta neighbors, fellow cotton farmers and best friends. Mary’s mother, Arlena, and Levon’s mother, Nell, had grown up together, and their families gathered for Sunday supper most every week. Levon liked to say the two families “lived on adjoining sharecroppers’ estates,” which wasn’t exactly true, but he liked the down-home sound of the expression.
From the get-go, Levon was the leader of the youngsters’ pack, always telling his own sister and brother and Mary and her two sisters and brother what to do and exactly how to do it. He set the rules no matter what game they were playing and changed them as it suited him. He once took credit for raising a 4-H Club calf, even though he had conned his female entourage into taking care of the creature and helping with the chores while he supervised. According to Mary, Levon brimmed with carefree bravado except when it came time every summer to take a dose of that vile Grove’s Tasteless [sic] Chill Tonic to ward off malaria, and then he took off and hid under the creek bridge or in the chinaberry tree.
Summertime also meant that everyone worked on the farm. Levon drove a tractor while playing a little battery-operated radio and singing along at the top of his lungs with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams on Helena station KFFA or KXJA in Forrest City. It was in this context that his Dad, who was named Diamond (yes, Diamond!), famously said to Levon: “Son, every now and then let a business thought run through your head; it won’t kill you.”
Everyone loved Levon, worshipped him really, including all his teachers and schoolmates at the local school. He was very handsome in an all-American way with his blonde slicked-down hair and starched and ironed jeans, and he always dated the prettiest girls — one after the other. He could do no wrong even though he “was always cutting up in class” and pulling jokes on people. Mary says she was forever “trying to make him do right.”
He was no student; getting a “C for him was like getting an A for most people.” Voted “Most Popular” and most everything else, Levon jokingly wondered (ironically in hindsight) why he wasn’t chosen “most likely to succeed.” He was always kind, though, and could laugh at himself.
Helm loved the movies and would sit on the front row at the Capitol Theater in Marvell on Saturdays, keeping his family waiting while he sat through all the shows until 11 p.m. But first and foremost, he loved music. He came from a musical family, and his father knew so many songs that, according to Levon, “he was a fountain of music.” The family gathered around to listen to The Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys and whenever the big travelling music shows came to town, the Helms were always there. Levon performed with his sister, Linda, as young teens on Saturday mornings on the King Biscuit Time, the long-running radio broadcast from Helena; he later credited the program as an inspiration for his musical career. He saw Elvis perform in the early 1950s at local Arkansas shows, although the King’s growing fame took him farther afield and made him harder to catch up to. In his book, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon recalls that he was about 15 when he started going up to Memphis to see the musicians who were inventing rock-and-roll.
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.”