Levon Helm: Rock, Roll & RambleJohn W. Barry
Ten years after his passing, it feels, in many ways, like Levon Helm never left Woodstock. Of course, a big chunk of that is due to the timeless, world-renowned music he made here with The Band, Bob Dylan, his own bands, and so many other artists. But much of that feeling that flows through the pines and hollows around the mountain town comes from the love the community itself has for the late drummer, singer, and mandolinist. It also comes from the warm vibes that elevated the popular Midnight Ramble sessions that resurrected his career and continue to be held at the Barn, his home and recording studio at 160 Plochmann Lane. A note-taking fly on the wall since just about the beginning of those intimate events—I don't think I've ever gone to a Ramble and not seen him there—is former Poughkeepsie Journal music columnist John Barry, whose Levon Helm: Rock, Roll, & Ramble focuses on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and multiple-Grammy winner's final years and the scene around his beloved house concerts.
Through his own observations and anecdotes and interviews with and remembrances by the musicians who played at his side (Larry Campbell, Jimmy Vivino, Jim Weider, Erik Lawrence, others), members of the Barn's "Team Levon" staff (manager Barbara O'Brien, engineer Justin Guip, security crew member Chris Howe), local luminaries (Assemblyman Kevin Cahill), and even several of the attendees themselves, Barry sketches a you-are-there snapshot album of the weekly sessions whose freewheeling atmosphere and earthy music always felt like an extension of Helm himself.
Perhaps the book's most priceless passages, however, are the wonderfully, well, rambling stories about Helm's childhood and early years on the road that the writer collected firsthand during his time around the Southern-bred musician. Full of downhome banter and folk wisdom, they underscore his existence as a direct link to the vanishing past and, to borrow a line from Greil Marcus, the old, weird America ("I could eat, fight, and raise hell and listen to music all at the same time," the drummer recalls about growing up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas).
Helm's history is touched on mainly through his homespun yarns, and for context there's a bit of the history of the Woodstock region he called home from 1967 on (except for a 1973-1975 spell in California with The Band), landing here after his wild years on the road with rockabilly warriors Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and the tumultuous 1965-1966 tour with Dylan's trailblazing electric group. For the most part, though, the book is a testament to the tenacity, struggle, and redemption of Helm as he weathered the fiery destruction of the Barn and its rebuilding (he cheekily named his post-fire ensemble the Barn Burners), financial bankruptcy, and cancer diagnosis and treatments while making some of the best music of his life—along with legions of new fans and friends. And it's those friends who do most of the talking here, sharing the moments they shared with the rock icon and, in the cases of the musicians, talking not only about what it was like to play with and spend time around him but also about the ways in which The Band's music and Helm's persona profoundly influenced them.
In his preface, Barry accurately asserts that his book doesn't take the place of Helm and Stephen Davis's 1993 autobiography This Wheel's on Fire. Instead, it serves as an epilogue to that more Band-centric tome, a parting portrait of Midnight Ramble-era (2003-2012) Helm and the rent party/medicine show-inspired house concerts that reflected, and still reflect, his vision and personality.
"Keep it goin'," Levon famously requested of his daughter Amy Helm and the rest of the events' organizers shortly before his death. In its own way, Rock Roll Ramble honors that request by celebrating both the series and the spirit of the man that forever runs through it.
Recital Publishing, 2022, $15
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