Voice Media Group Award Winner: Remembering Levon Helm

Jeff Fielder
Recently, Voice Media Group held a competition to help determine the best music writing in the pages and on the blogs of its 14 papers. This winning piece by Jesse Sykes first appeared in Seattle Weekly's print edition.

By Jesse Sykes

As I was
growing up in New York state--where the residents want you to know they don't live in "The City"--the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Woodstock, and the music of The Band were all entangled in the region's mythology; on occasion, the boundary between the distant and recent past blurred completely. The Redcoats moved through our town during the Revolutionary War, 109 of our residents served in the Civil War, The Band's music--made a familiar 100 miles away--was a ubiquitous presence, and Woodstock took place on a farm down the road from a house our family used as a hunting cabin. In my young mind, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Levon Helm and Max Yasgur all seemed to be of the same era, one far removed from my own.

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Live: Bustle In Your Hedgerow, Craig Finn, Nicole Atkins, And More Pay Tribute To Levon Helm

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Levon Helm. With Marco Benevento, Dave Dreiwitz, Scott Metzger, and Joe Russo (a/k/a Bustle in Your Hedgerow) and many others.
Brooklyn Bowl
Monday, June 4

Better than: Nothingness.

One of my favorite conversations with the late psychonautic writer Terence McKenna had to do with the evolution of psychedelic rock during the late 1960s. "Things seemed to be going along just fine," he once riffed to me. "The Rolling Stones came out with Their Satanic Majesties Request and the prospects for real psychedelic rock seemed limitless. And then the Band released Music From Big Pink, and everything seemed to go into reverse all at once." Even today, The Band's Canadian take on Southern culture has permeated our own cultural DNA as though it had been there all along. And with Levon Helm, the group's only Southerner, as its heartbeat and preeminent singer, perhaps it always had.

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Levon Helm, R.I.P.

Levon Helm died yesterday, at 71, from cancer. You didn't have to know him (as I did, faintly, fondly), to know that along with possessing one of the most moving voices and wickedest backbeats American music will ever know, that he had one of the most incredible, most surprising lives imaginable. Born into sharecropper poverty in Arkansas, he not only witnessed the birth of rock and roll, but helped to preside over its re—birth, when he (briefly) played drums behind the wild, discordant, drug—driven rawk created by one of his bosses, Bob Dylan. That group, his group, The Hawks, went from five years of godawful, you-need-speed-to-get-through-'em gigs at every roadhouse and bar in the U.S., to being The Band, the biggest, most fawned-over Musical Ensemble this country had ever seen. By 1969, there were elegant concert halls, stadiums, tons of dough, more ink than any rock and roll band had gotten since The Beatles. Then, for Levon and several of the others, came near-poverty and very hard times. Forget Faulkner or Steinbeck; his life could've been scripted by Fitzgerald.

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