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What Levon Helm called rock 'n' roll was deep-bottomed American music

Levon Helm jokes with someone in the crowd while performing at Massey Hall in Toronto, June 29, 2010.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

In The Band's valedictory concert movie The Last Waltz, the director Martin Scorsese asked Levon Helm about his Arkansas roots and the indigenous sounds of the region. Helm, in his laconic, rhythmic drawl, spoke of bluegrass, country and blues, and that if it all danced together just right you had a different kind of music. "And, what's it called," asked the film's director Martin Scorsese. With a smile, Helm replied: "Rock 'n' roll."

Helm, at age 71, died on Thursday, in Manhattan, from complications of cancer.

What he called rock 'n' roll was deep-bottomed American music, a kind of alchemy he helped develop. The Band's style was ramshackle, lyrical and beautiful, with the outfit's lone Southerner at the centre of it. Robbie Robertson was the songwriter, but his visions were folk tales and myths. In 1961, when Robertson took the Greyhound from Toronto to West Helena, on the Mississippi River, it was the intense and wiry drummer who met the guitarist at the bus station and initiated him into the mystery of the region. Robertson knew of the blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Mr. Helm knew him.

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The rockabilly trouper Ronnie Hawkins, who formed The Band (then known as The Hawks) as his backing group, recently described Mr. Helm as a "natural musician," one who didn't even have a set of drums when he was hired. "We rented him a set," recalled Hawkins, "but the snares were worn out. Levon had to keep running to the kitchen to heat them up, tightening the snare skins."

His drumming was a hybrid of blues shuffle and street-march, with a fat, whomping back beat that sat so far "behind," it's been written, that it nearly steps into the next bar.

The everlasting image of Helm will likely be of him simultaneously singing and keeping funky time, his shoulders hunched up as he brought his mouth to the microphone. His voice? One of the greatest – a slightly snarling, race-less, timeless twang that blended with the rich harmonies of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel or stood on its own.

English musicians in particular were drawn to The Band. Eric Clapton, inspired by listening to a bootlegged acetate of The Basement Tapes in 1968, travelled to The Band's camp in Woodstock, N.Y., to see if there was room for a second guitarist. There was not. "They had a very closed scene," he recalled in 2004. "I wanted to be part of it, but there was no way in. All I could do was admire it from afar, and long for something similar."

What other players longed for was the authenticity. And if The Band was seen as authentic, there was nothing more real than the singing, drumming, mandolin-strumming son of a cotton farmer.

Helm was the voice of Yazoo Street Scandal, Don't Ya Tell Henry, Up on Cripple Creek and Rag Mama Rag. He of course took his share of the verses of The Weight. Did he have a signature song? If so, it was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written by Robertson about the waning days of the American Civil War and the night that Richmond, Va., fell to the Northerners.

"All the people were singing," the song went. But we remember one voice above the rest.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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