Levon and My Kids

The power of music in human relationships.

Posted Jun 11, 2012

I think about the loss of Levon Helm almost every day. But this is not because I was a fanatic about The Band. Don’t get me wrong. As a child of the '60s, I love the Band. Who didn’t? But I had mixed feelings about Levon and his fellow musicians.

Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I spent a number of years working as a member of the grounds crew for the Philadelphia Folk Festival. As a teenager, I went to the Philly Folk Song Society, frequented the Main Point, and took guitar lessons from John Pilla, who backed up Doc Watson and Arlo Guthrie among others. In fact, I bought my first real guitar through John who got it from Fred Neil. John said it was an old beat up 1935 Martin, but I found out much later it was really made in 1956. Too bad, I could have been a wealthy man. But just the thought of playing an instrument that was held and strummed by the guy who wrote “Everybody’s Talkin” and “Little Bit of Rain” was enough for me. I met a lot of incredible artists as a kid. I was lucky. I sat by the campfire and clutched my guitar while Mississippi John Hurt played “Creole Bell” and took swigs from his flask in between tunes. What a time. I had no idea how blessed I was.

So it was no surprise that my first awareness of Levon was when his band, The Hawks backed up Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (I only recently learned the name of that band). And though just 15, I was one of those folkies who was outraged when Dylan went electric. Though I didn’t go to the festival (15-year-olds didn’t go to shows as they do now), I am not sure if I would have booed as many people did at the concert. I felt disillusioned and betrayed. But when Music From Big Pink came out, and I heard Levon’s lead vocal in “The Weight” there was nothing like it – and there never will be again. The song makes no sense, literally. Yet musically, it rings true more than just about any other tune I know. Really. It makes me smile every time I hear it. Who knows who “Crazy Chester” was? And what does “Catch a cannonball” mean? I am sure someone knows. I really don’t care. It sounds great and rolls right off of your tongue. I never pay much attention to the lyrics in music anyway. Whether listening or playing, it is never the words that grabbed me; though I am always amazed and impressed by those who know every word. I don’t think it matters, though. Music, with or without words, just connects. 

I am fortunate. Music is such a huge part of my life and it is the one thing I share with my kids beyond anything else. Nothing ties us closer. It turns out they all love my favorite music (or at least most of it). I wonder how this happened. Maybe they saw how connected I was to music when they were growing up. I really have no clue. But it happened. And every summer at my sister’s cabin not far from Woodstock, New York, they repeatedly ask to go to the Midnight Ramble. And every year we somehow miss it for one reason or another. We were always late in getting tickets, and by the time August came around, it was sold out or Levon was on tour. This year was going to be different. We planned to buy a whole lot of tickets a year or so in advance. And it was especially important since we all knew Levon had been struggling with cancer. When I learned of his death in April it was beyond devastating. I never got to experience him right in his own barn with his family and with my kids.

My kids are purists. They do not tolerate anyone covering Dylan, the Beatles, or any other music of that time. They want to hear vinyl. When I tell them I plan to digitize my collection, they insist that I keep the scratches and pops and not remaster my old albums. They know me through the music I love. They knew that when I had the good fortune of hosting Ry Cooder at my home, one of the kids said, “If there were the top three musicians dead or alive I knew you would want to meet Ry Cooder would be one of them (along with John Lennon). You are so lucky.” I never found out who the third musician was, but I know my kids get me.

Levon Helm’s music, like all great music, brings us together—internally and externally. It is far from polished and never over-produced. Its soul resonates with ours. It speaks to our humanity. Many have written about his voice and spirit as being truly American—the Southern roots of cotton farmers, the tone and vocal inflections, and even its simplicity, integrity and honesty. For me, it is more than this. It brings the inside out. It makes me smile but also tearful. It captures some core piece of my childhood and my family ties. I am not sure where the sadness comes from; it is always joyful hearing or singing Levon’s music with my kids. Maybe Levon knows.