Rambling on: Levon Helm, 1940-2012

The sounds of sweeter days: Levon's groove coupled with daughter Amy's soaring vocals. YouTube video from a 2010 show at the Horseshoe Casino.

A few simple words, posted today on Levon Helm's website, are reverberating around the world:

Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.

On Tuesday, the news that the end was near for Helm washed over the region and the wider world like a tsunami. Wasn't it just five minutes ago that we were looking forward to his next show? It wasn't completely unexpected, of course; Helm's struggle with cancer was common knowledge. We were used to knowing about it -- and used to him winning round after round. When the news that the end was near was announced on www.levonhelm.com yesterday, social media and the very air around here shook with a collective gasp of sorrow- and rang even louder with a shout of love and gratitude.

Fellow musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason were taken aback by the news.

“Levon and the Band, along with Bob Dylan, were really responsible for making this area a vital place for rock and American roots music,” says Ungar. “Before that, it was an arts colony and there was classical at Maverick, but Levon's impact has been huge. And I'm so glad he's had the pleasure and gratification of a comeback that's been all about him and his legacy...the Midnight Rambles, the studio, Electric Dirt. Everybody who played with Levon- their 'groovesmanship,' if you will, couldn't help but improve.”

Helm's comeback would be deeply intertwined with his personal roots. The intimate Midnight Ramble sessions at “the Barn” were styled after “southern medicine shows of his youth,” according to his website. His three Grammy-winning CDs, Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and Ramble At The Ryman, drew on music he first heard as a child.

“The world's best drummer,” says Mason. “And we're inspired by the way his daughter Amy (Helm, who performs with roots-rock band Ollabelle) has been following in his footsteps. She and Jay's daughter Ruthy have performed together a few times...It's hard to imagine a finer legacy than that, but it seems to happen with roots music- look at Sara Lee and Johnnie Guthrie, they're the third generation now. They see the hard work, the unpredictable life, and they still choose to make music. We're so inspired by the great ones.”

Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and he fought his way to a remission that allowed him to go on performing and remain a vital force of nature on the local and national music scene for another fifteen years. Chronogram published a retrospective on Helm's personal rennaissance in 2008. In between playing with greats such as Emmylou Harris, Joan Osborne and Little Sammy Davis at the Ramble sessions, he threw memorable free shows for locals at Gill's Farm in Hurley.

“It really is the end of an era,” said Woodstock musician Happy Traum. “I've known Levon since 1968. Our kids grew up together, we have a lot in common -- I played frequently at the Rambles, and it was one of the great musical experiences of my life. He had a world class band together, and people came from all over the world to listen -- it was a spirit and a feeling so powerful that I went every chance I got."

“Levon was all about the groove -- not at all flashy, but he had the best feel for it of almost anyone in the world. That solid feeling of the rhythmic pulse he laid down -- unforgettable. He made a huge contribution to the spirit and the economy of Woodstock. He'll be sorely missed.”

According to a CBS News story, manager Barbara O'Brien read aloud to Helm the many tributes that poured in via Facebook after the news that he was dying was made public earlier this week. Helm's own official page was updated with a message from her to his friends and fans. “Thank you, all, for the outpouring of kindness and love. I know Levon is feeling it and that love will help guide him through this final journey. Thank you for your respect for his, Sandy's and Amy's privacy,” O'Brien wrote.

“YOU are truly people with class and Levon would think the world of you. The pain of knowing we're going to lose him is almost too much for all of us to bear at the moment... Let's send him off with love, positive energy, lots of light and words of support and comfort.”