Two Woodstocks bid farewell to Levon Helm

Above: Footage of The Band performing at Woodstock, August 17, 1969. The Band was not featured in Woodstock, the famous documentary about the festival, but their set was filmed, and clips from their performance can be found on YouTube.

In 1968, when most soon-to-be fans first heard of “The Band”, it was Levon Helm we first heard, singing lead vocal on “The Weight” in a voice that hit us right in the gut. I was a teenager on Long Island at the time, and Woodstock the town meant little to me then. Levon and his bandmates inhabited the FM airwaves. They reigned in college dorm rooms with an amazing roots Americana sound, back when few of us gave much thought to where pop’s inspiration came from, or where musicians actually lived.

It felt like Levon belonged to all of us back then. If we thought of Levon as part of Woodstock, for most of us, it was that other mythical Woodstock -- Woodstock Nation -- and we were citizens of that nation too. Now, as the wrenching news of Levon Helm’s passing travels, in a wave spreading out from Woodstock, New York, it falls on all the distant shores of Woodstock Nation. They are far and they are many. Levon Helm's music is playing this week to the four corners of the earth.

Levon Helm was one of the brightest and truest stars to shine in our Woodstock Nation sky. Countless millions responded to his pull, though few of us ever knew him personally. Levon’s death is a deep loss to Woodstock Nation, whose heaven is now one supernova brighter. But that loss is more raw and personal in Woodstock the town.

I say this as someone who never got to know Levon Helm personally, though I was lucky to see him play live, both at the height of The Band’s fame and later in the Levon Helm Band. Here in the Catskills, in the hills surrounding Woodstock, Levon Helm was a local. It wasn’t just that he resided here. Levon was a local by choice. Respect and affection for him ran far deeper around Woodstock than it would for an ordinary rock star in our midst.

Levon Helm was a constantly affirming presence, a kind and gracious pillar of our own cultural community, and it didn’t require knowing him personally to sense how true that was. Levon delivered great music to Woodstock Nation, and he sustained great music in Woodstock, New York. Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble series is justifiably legendary, but the free shows and benefits he took part in locally won’t be forgotten here soon either.

Levon placed an indelible stamp on Woodstock that will proudly be worn for as long as music is played here. His daughter Amy, whose band Ollabelle owes much to the roots-rock legacy of The Band, is already helping see to that. Our hearts go out to her now, and to Levon’s wife Sandy. They are both strong women whose strength will be called on over these coming days.

Levon was a force of nature. How else can you explain how one boy from Arkansas could get embedded in a band full of Canadians only to have them all emerge with a sound that straddled the Mason-Dixon Line? It was a sound distinctly different from most anything being played back then. You might even call it prophetic. The Band’s catalog of work went a long way toward defining the genre of Americana long before the term was ever coined.

Levon could have rested on his Woodstock Nation laurels. But 42 years after the electrifying debut of The Band's Music From Big Pink, his 2010 album Electric Dirt won the first Grammy ever awarded to the brand-new “Americana” genre. His live 2011 album, Ramble at the Ryman, won the second.

It takes a special musician to break significant new ground in his 70s. It takes a special person to do so with such simple grace and infectious joy. Woodstock Nation lost one of its giants when Levon Helm died. Woodstock, New York lost a friend and mentor also. All of us are blessed that we still have Levon’s Helm’s music to turn to, now and forever.

Tom Rinaldo writes the Dispatches from Shandaken column for the Watershed Post's Shandaken page. He also co-runs Flying Cat Music, a seasonal music series held at the Empire State Railway Museum in Shandaken. Email Tom at [email protected].