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Levon Helm: The 2007 Fresh Air Interview

Levon Helm was the longtime drummer and occasional vocalist for The Band.
Rob Loud
Getty Images
Levon Helm was the longtime drummer and occasional vocalist for The Band.

Levon Helm, the longtime drummer of The Band who backed Bob Dylan and sang with Van Morrison, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 71.

When The Band was backing Dylan in 1965, Time magazine described the combination as "in some ways the most decisive moment in rock history." The Band went on to record its own highly influential albums Music From Big Pink and The Band in 1968 and '69, before splitting up in the mid-'70s.

After The Band, Helm began working on his own solo efforts and toured with a variety of musicians, including Ringo Starr. After taking time off to battle throat and vocal-cord cancer, Helm reemerged in the late 2000s. In 2007, he released the album Dirt Farmer, which received the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, as well as many accolades from music critics. The Washington Post called Dirt Farmer "an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it."

After Dirt Farmer, Helm performed solo and with other musicians, and also continued to dabble in acting. (He'd played Loretta Lynn's father in the biopic Coal Miner's Daughter and had a part in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.) Helm also began presiding over monthly concerts in a barn on his Woodstock, N.Y., property, which he called "Midnight Rambles." The first featured a performance from blues legend Johnnie Johnson, and later brought out musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello.

Helm appeared on Fresh Air twice, first in 1993 and then again in 2007. Interview highlights from the 2007 conversation are below.

Interview Highlights

On His Midnight Rambles

"They're basically music parties. We have, you know, two, three, sometimes one a week, at least two or three a month. And we have them on Saturday nights in Woodstock at the studio. And it started out as basically a modern version of the old-fashioned rent party. But since then, the musicians that have taken part in it have really raised it to another level. And this, I guess, it's three years going on four years later now, and we have people that are coming in from all over the place to celebrate with us. And that includes the players, too."

On The Midnight Rambles He'd Seen As A Child

"One of my favorite traveling tent shows at the time was an outfit called, it was called the F.S. Walcott's Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. And this was a big four-pole or five-pole tent that they set up, and they parked two of the big tractor-trailer flatbeds side to side to make the stage, put the tent around that. And they had a chorus line, a band, a troupe of singers, dancers and players. And they would put on in these small towns through the South, they would play every week, and ... at the end of the concert, which would be over around 10:30, 11, they would offer a midnight ramble ticket. And for the people who could stay up late, all the kids were supposed to go home and get ready for school or Sunday school, and the grown-ups could stay and buy an extra ticket and get an extra half-hour, 45 minutes of music and spicier jokes. And one of the prettiest girls in the chorus line would do a little hoochie-coochie, and what a show."

On Performing At Larger Venues

"Those big things, you know, they're kind of a payoff in a way, I guess. But they're not very much fun. I've never been able to hear myself correctly in one of those situations. And it's basically like sticking your head in a barrel and trying to perform. And you do the best you can, but some of the worst shows I've ever played have been in those big places."

On Family Ties

"They are stronger for me now. And I've always appreciated my family and friends, you know, and those ties that bind us together. But it's like my music, this much later, and after you've almost gotten everything taken away from you, once you get that back, boy, it's a joyful life that we've all been given. And, you know, you can really — you know, when you see a young nephew or a young person in your family that's blood-related, and you see them for the first time, and they're not old enough to know that you're all related, but you can look into their face and they look into your eyes and you both know it. You know, we take it for granted and, you know, we enjoy that kind of thing without even a big thank you most of the time."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.