“When folks ask me where rock & roll came from,” Arkansas native Levon Helm once said, “I always think of our Southern medicine shows and that wild Midnight Ramble. Chuck Berry’s duck walk, Elvis Presley’s rockabilly gyration, Little Richard’s dancing at the piano, Jerry Lee Lewis’s antics, and Ronnie Hawkins’s camel walk could have come right off F. S. Walcott’s stage.”
Woodstock’s Midnight Ramble harkens back to the rural childhood of the man Rolling Stone called “rock & roll’s greatest drummer” during his tenure with Americana pioneers, the Band. Levon Helm, who was born in 1940 in the Arkansas Delta, grew up in the hamlet of Turkey Scratch surrounded by music made by his parents, heard on the radio, and experienced in person: Seminal bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, whose King Biscuit Time radio show blasted out of nearby Helena’s KFFA; Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, featuring Flatt & Scruggs; Elvis Presley in late ‘54. Levon literally witnessed the birth of rock & roll.
Also making a lasting impact on Levon was the F.S. Walcott traveling tent show and its adults-only Midnight Ramble, featuring “the Lady with the Million Dollar Smile” and “a fantastic left-handed drummer,” he recalled in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. Levon, who’d been playing guitar since age 9, realized that “the drums looked like the best seat in the house.” By the time Levon graduated high school, he’d already performed with his sister at county fairs, talent shows, and grange halls. He was snatched up by fellow Arkansan and frontman Ronnie Hawkins, who’d made a name for himself with his on-stage double flips and raucous R&B-meets-rockabilly sound. Touring Canada’s roadhouse circuit, the Hawks would also include Canadians Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. Splitting from Hawkins in 1965, this brotherhood of master musicians would call themselves Levon and the Hawks, and later, backing Bob Dylan after he went electric, simply “the Band.”
Which landed Levon in Woodstock, New York, where he fell in love with the bucolic countryside and small-town vibe. Dylan had put down roots there. “We all had that hometown feeling about the area,” Levon recalled. “The town took in the band and treated us like favorite sons. If someone asked, ‘Is the band in town?, they could be talking only about us. That’s how the town actually gave us our name.”
After settling there, the group recorded their debut LP, Music From Big Pink, named for the ranch house where they’d cut the legendary “Basement Tapes” with Dylan. When the Band kicked off their first post-album tour at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1969, esteemed critic Ralph Gleason wrote: “The first thing that flashed through my mind is that this is Levon’s band!...There he was, bushy beard, swinging shoulders and his Mephistophelian visage pushed up to the mike on one side of him as he drummed….A remarkable singer with a fine voice.” Another eyewitness, author and journalist Chet Flippo, recalled, “There was a communal joy, almost an epiphany, in the people around me as the music washed over them.”
That communal joy would propel Levon’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock 35 years later.
After ten albums together, creating an Americana songbook like no other, the group disbanded following the “Last Waltz” performance at Winterland in 1977. Levon had always maintained a home in Woodstock, where he built a rustic home and barn in the early ‘70s, featuring a recording studio and performance space. The first artist to cut an album at the Barn, in 1975, was seminal bluesman Muddy Waters, which won a Grammy the following year. Meanwhile, Levon formed the RCO All-Stars, which included members of Booker T. and the MGs and debuted on Saturday Night Live. The party celebrating the group’s self-titled album was held at the Barn, where Levon’s daughter, six-year-old Amy Helm, sang publicly for the first time.
Following a Levon solo LP recorded in Muscle Shoals, the Band reunited in 1983, minus Robertson, and toured and recorded three albums over the next 15 years. Along the way, Levon acted in such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff and guested on albums like All the Kings Men, recording a track with Keith Richards and Elvis’ bandmates guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana at the Barn.
But the 1990s brought a “very hard period of my life,” Levon said. After fire ravaged over 80% of his home in 1991, he “thought you would never be able to hear the sound of the Barn studio again.” But after a masterful rebuild, he moved back in and the “studio sounded better than ever.”
Then in 1996, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer. “The great thing was being able to fight back,” Levon recalled of this frightening time. “My whole appreciation of just being alive in the world became a very precious thing. On hot summer nights, I’d walk into a big dark grove of evergreen pines near the creek behind my house, and just breathe in the pine oxygen and hemlock scent, trying to clear fifty years of smoking cigarettes out of my system…I’d wash my face off in the cool black creek water…and tried to use the aromas and healing air of the forest to help my body and spirit recover. Eventually, between the forest and my prayers…and the long drives to the radiation clinic [in New York City with daughter Amy], I started to get better.” Surgery and 28 radiation treatments kept Levon alive, but left his distinctive tenor a raspy whisper.
Miraculously, still playing mandolin and drums with his Barn Burners Blues Band, with Amy on lead vocals and Little Sammy Davis on harp, Levon’s voice gradually came back. And in 2004, he opened his beloved Barn to host his very own Midnight Rambles. He carefully put together the Midnight Ramble house band, featuring Amy, Little Sammy Davis, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, vocalist Teresa Williams, guitarist Jimmy Vivino, bassists Mike Merritt and Byron Isaacs, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, drummer Tony Leone, and killer horn section Erik Lawrence, Steven Bernstein, Jay Collins, Clark Gayton, and Howard Johnson. The first Ramble starred legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson, who pioneered rock & roll alongside Chuck Berry.
“Every time a show starts and I’m onstage, I find myself in awe of the musicianship all around me,” Amy said in 2009. “Every person in this group plays with such mastery and passion. The Ramble has become a community, a place for people to meet, sing, laugh, trade stories.” Folks brought covered dishes to share, and they chatted with Levon, hanging out by the popcorn machine before taking the stage. Soon, word about the Rambles spread far and wide outside the Catskill Mountains.
Levon’s pals and fellow musicians flocked to the Barn, to join the Midnight Ramble fun, aweing fans who never thought they’d experience Levon and friends like Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Norah Jones, and Dr. John so up-close and personal. “A Ramble is a gathering, an intimate sharing of community spirit and goodwill,” Larry Campbell wrote in his Preface to photographer Paul Laraia’s book, The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble. “All who enter, musician and audience member alike, will leave feeling better than when they walked in. It’s a few hours to forget your troubles and let the music rejuvenate your soul; homegrown, honest, timeless American music that’s made simply for the pure joy it provides.”
Invigorated by such camaraderie and musical excellence, Levon returned to his Barn studio to cut Dirt Farmer in 2007. His first solo album in 25 years included songs he’d been taught as a child by his dad, Diamond Helm. It won the first of three Grammys in a row for Levon, the second being 2009’s Electric Dirt, and the third 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman, documenting the touring Ramble. Throughout the years, Levon gave back to the Woodstock community, too, playing benefits to raise money for music in the local schools and other worthwhile causes. The local economy boomed as Woodstock became a destination again for music lovers from around the world.
We lost Levon in April 2012, but his spirit remains at the joyous Midnight Rambles inside his gorgeous hemlock-beamed Barn. Just days before his passing, he urged his loved ones to “Keep it going” – to continue the tradition, keeping music alive and thriving at the Barn. And they have.