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Levon Helm made it OK and gave joy through music

Jan Hearne • Apr 30, 2012 at 9:07 AM

Levon Helm talked like me. He sang, “Whut?” He said, “winda.”

In a time when celebrities didn’t sound like me and country music was considered a joke, Levon came out of Arkansas through Canada and sang about Dixie in a way that didn’t make me want to hang my head.

As you know, Levon Helm, legendary drummer/singer, songwriter, actor and influential member of The Band, died April 19 at the age of 71. His passing has been hard on his fans; we go back a long way.

In the midst of psychedelia, of Hendrix and Clapton and the acid-influenced Beatles, The Band came out with “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Their songs sounded old when they were new, like familiar tunes from a previous life. Even though I was a teenager, I felt something different when I listened to them.

It was a time when it was very uncool to be a Southerner. Our geography labeled us bigots, backward, barefoot, brainless.

All of this was floating beneath the surface because I dissociated from my birthplace, my home. It was not OK to be me on any level when I was a teen, and the geopolitical layer was just another rock stacked on the pressing board of angst.

And then came “The Weight,” which spoke to me of red dirt roads and summer dust … in the South, where I was born and lived and had until then never left. The song told a story I knew, and Levon didn’t just sing it, he lived it.

Levon had a voice like no other. He didn’t even attempt to shed his accent, and when he moved into acting, playing Loretta Lynn’s daddy in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” it served him well. There was a dignity to that face, that man. He was as real as overalls hanging on a wash line.

True, Levon was no saint. He was a rocker, after all, but the inner core seemed solid as an old oak, and so, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, and came through it, I thought he might just live forever. And if not forever, longer than I would.

The universe continues to amaze me: On reflection, its perverse sense of humor can sometimes be seen as a moment of grace. On Saturday, April 14, I was weeding wild strawberries from a flower bed, listening to music. A song from “Largo,” came on, Levon Helm singing, “Gimme a Stone.” It was such a light moment; his voice made me happy. I thought to myself, “I’m so glad Levon beat cancer,” and gave thanks for the music still to come.

On Wednesday, April 18, a Facebook post said Levon was in the last stages of cancer. Thursday afternoon, we learned he had died.

I heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” performed live once, not by The Band, but by a Knoxville group called Rich Mountain Tower. I had on blue-and-white-striped jeans; I was 19 years old. When they struck up that song, joy bisected my gloomy soul.

It wasn’t simply OK to be me, it was lucky and joy-filled. Music gave that to me. Levon Helm gave that to me. And for that, I can only say thank you, Levon, and God speed.

Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at [email protected]

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