The Medicine Show Man: A remembrance of Levon Helm.
Levon Helm was a musician’s musician. Raised near Helena, Arkansas, home of the King Biscuit Time, the longest-running radio show, he was raised in the very heart of what would become rock and roll. As a kid, he saw Elvis Presley in concert and Little Richard but it would be Jerry Lee Lewis‘ drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton who inspired him to become one of rock and roll’s greatest drummers.
I think of Levon Helm and the image of the magical Medicine Show springs to mind, of The Rabbit’s Foot Company, pulling into an open area with two cars and a big old tent. Once they’d been magnificent, back in the early 1900s, owned by Pat Chappelle, three railroad cars full of the last vaudevillians, dancers, musicians, comedy acts, solo and ensemble singers. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Big Joe Williams. By the time Levon Helm saw them in the 40s, they’d been sold to W.S. Walcott. Robbie Robertson would write the song, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show for The Band’s 1970 album Stage Fright but it was Levon’s song for all intents and purposes, for it was his story.
Strange times they were at the birth of rock and roll. On a fateful tour with Ronnie Hawkins, one of rock’s first wild men, Levon Helm fell in with a collection of Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel.
I consider the truest form of a band is before they become famous. The Beatles worked their asses off in one city, Hamburg, Germany. The Hawks played every ratty bar in America and Canada, seemingly. Long before The Band would become famous through some Minnesota folkie, name of Bob Dylan, Mark Lavon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas was being polished in the rock tumbler on the little stages of a thousand smoky bars.
Like the Beatles, The Band was a collection of many headstrong talents. The guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson got a good deal more of the spotlight than some say he deserved. Rick Danko the bassist was a wonderful singer. Garth Hudson was a monster talent, especially on keyboards. But the tragic figure and voice of Richard Manuel will always haunt me, that eerie falsetto of Whispering Pines.
Levon Helm was The Band’s only American and their most famous song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down might lead the incautious to conclude they were a Southern band. They were not. Americans sorta forget how much we share with Canada and how long we’ve shared our common fate on this huge windswept continent. Levon Helm lived long enough to see himself as a quintessential American figure in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter but he never fit comfortably in any musical genre. When Dylan went electric, the precious old folkies hated him, booed him hard. While the rest of rock and roll dumped the “and roll” part of their monicker and went off in search of the Next New Thing, Levon Helm hung true to the vision of the Medicine Show, of something older and truer.
Musicians never forgot him. Levon Helm got in financial trouble and they turned up for his famous Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, New York. Garth Hudson, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Chris Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Jimmy Vivino of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s” The Max Weinberg 7. Sean Costello, The Muddy Waters Tribute Band, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Carolyn Wonderland, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, The Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Phil Lesh (along with his sons Grahame and Brian), Hot Tuna (although Jorma Kaukonen introduced the group as “The Secret Squirrels”), Michael Angelo D’Arrigo with various members of the Sistine Chapel, Johnny Johnson, Ithalia, David Bromberg, the list goes on and on.
Levon got sick and even Robbie Robertson was man enough to put down his feud and make up with his old bandmate. I close with Robbie’s song but Levon’s story, from the W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.
When your arms are empty, got no where to go
Come on out and catch the show
There’ll be saints and sinners you’ll see losers and winners
All kinds of people you might want to know
Once you get it, you can’t forget it
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
You know he always holds it in a tent
And if you’re looking for the real thing
He can show you where it went
There’s a young faith healer he’s a woman stealer
He will cure by his command
When the music’s hot you might have to stand
To hear the Klondike Klu Klux steamboat band
Don’t you sweat it
You can’t forget it
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
I’d rather die happy than not die at all
And a man is a fool who will not heed the call