He was a lone Arkansan in a sea of Canadians and his unique vocal treatments and solid drumming made him one of the more well known members of The Band. His connection with the other members of The Band came when, as a member of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, he moved to Canada. Following the move, the musicians who became The Band one by one joined Ronnie Hawkins’ entourage.
One of the better known songs to feature Levon Helm on vocals was the original version of “Then Night they Drove Old Dixie Down.” Although Joan Baez later had a hit with the song charting at #3, The Band’s version received airplay; however, the tune was regulated to “B” side status – appearing as the flip to “Up on Cripple Creek.” The “A” side peaked on the Billboard charts at 25 in 1969. In tribute to Levon and to fit our regular Friday Flipside feature, “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” is today’s selection.
Live Version from The Last Waltz
In addition to his music, Helm became an accomplished actor. Both he and Robbie Robertson began their acting careers in 1980 – Robertson in “Carney” and Helm starring as Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Both are worth seeing. Helm would act in 10 additional movies and of course perform in The Band’s “The Last Waltz.” It is said that this was the last time Helm performed this tune live.
In their message to his fans, his family reflected, “Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration... he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage.”
First it was Richard Manuel – then Rick Danko – and now Levon Helm. Of The Band, only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson survive. The Band and Levon Helm touched the lives of many – including Elton John and Bernie Taupin, who credited the group as one of their favorites in the early 1970s. When writing the music for John’s “Madman across the Water” LP, they borrowed Levon’s name for title character of that particular tune. He may be gone from this earth, but his legacy will live on forever. Rest in Peace Levon Helm.