The recent passing of drummer-vocalist Levon Helm, best known for his work with The Band, affected me very deeply. Of his significance culturally, I can do little more than amplify what has already been said by countless fans who were greatly touched by Helm’s music, and by fellow musicians who had the privilege to share a stage with him.
Such tributes are themselves heartening reminders of Helm’s generous spirit, revealing the many ways that people – a culture, really – can very purely reflect a single individual’s humanity and grace. We need such reminders more often, and I will surely remember these recent weeks whenever I hear a recording of Helm’s rolling drum style and soulful voice, and whenever my fellow musician friends and I gather to sing songs in what has become a yearly tradition modeled after Helm's
storied Midnight Ramble shows.
Living in upstate New York, I was extremely fortunate to have attended three Midnight Ramble shows at Helm's barn/studio in Woodstock. Rooted in the spirit of the traveling “tent shows” that Helm witnessed in Arkansas during his youth, the intimate Woodstock Rambles of recent years – presided by Helm and his exceptional house band – had an almost participatory feel to them, offering perhaps the closest opportunity for pure audience involvement in a musical act without actually being on stage. These shows were electrifying and magical, with world-class musicians giving their all, sometimes assisted by surprise guest artists, including the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello. On two of the nights I attended, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan sat behind the piano and the Loving Spoonful's John Sebastian was introduced for a few numbers.
For each Ramble, I sat in a different location of Helm’s barn, capturing a different blend of visual and sound perspectives during an experience that was rich with both. Perhaps my favorite spot was recommended by my drummer friend Jim when he and his wife Lisa joined me for a Helm show two years ago. That night, we sat in the front row of the second-floor balcony facing out sideways from stage-right. This spot offered a frontward view of Helm’s stage-left side-positioned drum set, a profile view of the vocalists and guitar fretboards, and a bird's-eye view of the horn section and piano just below us, where we could peer down and, if so inclined, follow along with the sheet music and Sharpie-scribbled set lists.
Many of the Ramble participants live locally, but my friend Mike always comes in from Boston, and some have travelled from as far as D.C. to take part, performing songs by The Band and other groups that occupy a similar musical niche: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the like. All six or seven of us stand in a circle armed with guitars, a drum set, congas and other percussion pieces, pedal steel, bass and a wall of amps, each taking turns calling a tune, telling a story or cracking jokes.
The evening ebbs and flows, with vast stretches where not a single note is played, and others where not a single word is spoken. By definition, to “ramble” is to wander in a kind of drifting manner. Likewise, it could be said that this same spirit imbues the music, the colorful banter, the ethos, and the camaraderie of our yearly Ramble get-togethers.
For millions of fans, Helm's music is an American cultural treasure that brought people together using the great glue of the American roots tradition: blues, folk and country music. For my friends and I, in our little corner of the world, not far from his Woodstock home, Levon Helm gave us a defining, time-honored principle of musical fellowship, and for that I am grateful.
Roger Noyes is a musician from Albany, N.Y., who plays guitar, bass and, now, pedal-steel guitar in a number of area bands, performing everything from jazz to "Americana" and rock. Sound clips as well as information on his various music projects and show dates are at rogernoyes.com. He is also a local writer and a communications professional during his day gig.
Previous Posts By This Author: Betting on the Horse