Levon Helm: Rambling on the Roots

BY Arts Desk  February 2, 2009 at 12:35 PM EDT

Nestled in the woods at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, the majestic wooden structure that is home to Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble concert series is quite the site. It is, first and foremost, Helm’s home. And it is the homey vibe of the place, the warm intimacy of the gathering that pervades the proceedings. On a small stage in a dimly-lit, Amish-style barn (held together by wooden pegs, no nails), top-notch multi-instrumentalists perform Americana classics. Indeed, the rambles at Helm’s house come off as virtuosic family affairs. His daughter, Amy, often joins him on stage, and two of the regular performers, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, are married, adding to the family feel.Click to Watch

Midnight Ramble jams are also a journey through the roots of American music and a testament to Helm’s contribution to rock and roll, blues, bluegrass, gospel — you name it. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was exposed to music at an early age, playing the guitar and harmonica and singing with his sister. By age 14, he had already seen Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

Helm lives in Woodstock, N.Y., not far from the famed Big Pink, the house where in the late 1960s “Levon and the Hawks” morphed into The Band, before setting off in 1968 to record their debut album “Music from Big Pink.” The Band held a farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976 called “The Last Waltz,” which remains one of the most revered and well documented moments in rock and roll.

The Band regrouped in the early 1980s (replacing guitarist Robbie Robertson) and played until 1996, when Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. The voice known from songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” fell silent, but eventually returned. Helm chose to record songs his parents used to sing, and he staged ramble sessions like the ones he attended as a boy. The Midnight Rambles are held almost weekly these days, and the series recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.

We set out to Woodstock to see a Midnight Ramble on a cold January night. After the show, we sat down at the kitchen table with Helm and Campbell to talk about their Grammy-winning album from last year, Dirt Farmer, which Campbell produced. With the house dogs milling around at our feet, we also discussed their latest project, a follow up to Dirt Famer, tentatively titled Electric Dirt (we’ll keep you posted on its release), and making music in a digital age.

“Songs don’t wear out. Good songs are good now. If they were a comfort during those hard times in the past, they’ll be a comfort in today’s age,” Helm said. He continues to blend sounds and sentiments from all over the musical map. That openness and desire for discovery is what’s best about American music. And few places show it better than the Midnight Ramble.

Click below for additional interviews with Helm’s longtime friend and Ramble volunteer, Dennis Cooper, opening act the Wood Brothers (featuring Chris Wood of Medeski Martin & Wood) and saxophonist Erik Lawrence; and more clips from that night’s performance.