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Classic Americana: Levon Helm

Levon Helm during a performance at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Levon Helm during a performance at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.Rick Diamond/Getty Images

by Mike Pengra and Luke Taylor

May 31, 2024

Every Friday around 11 a.m. Central, it’s time for Classic Americana on Radio Heartland. We pull a special track from the archives or from deep in the shelves to spotlight a particular artist or song.

Perhaps best known as a singing drummer, Levon Helm was born to a cotton-farming family in Arkansas in 1940. Because Arkansas was located at the crossroads of several different musical styles, including the blues and country, Helm got interested in music at an early age, learning guitar and drums. By the time he was a teenager, Ronnie Hawkins had recruited Helm to perform with his band the Hawks, but Helm’s mother insisted he graduate from high school first. After earning his diploma, Levon Helm headed north to join The Hawks — a nucleus of musicians who also included Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. If those names sound familiar, it’s because the Hawks would eventually team up with Bob Dylan, and later become better known as The Band.

Although Helm left The Band for a couple years in the mid-60s, he rejoined the group in 1967 and remained with them until their well-documented conclusion in 1976.

'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band' press image
The Band (left to right): Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson.
Elliott Landy

After The Band, Helm performed as a solo artist and also as an actor, appearing in such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff.

In the early 1990s, Helm’s life and career suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. A tumor was removed from Helm’s throat, but his vocal cords were damaged in the process. But by the mid-2000s, Helm’s voice began to return and he staged a miraculous comeback, releasing, in 2007, the album Dirt Farmer, which ended up winning a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008. One of the tracks on that album is “Feelin’ Good,” Helm’s cover of a J.B. Lenoir song. We’ll hear that song this week as our Classic Americana pick. 

Helm went on to release Electric Dirt in 2009, which won the Best Americana Album Award at the Grammys the following year — the first year that category was represented. In 2011, Helm released the live album Ramble at the Ryman, which would also win a Grammy for Best Americana Album.

Two people embrace  in a recording studio
Levon Helm with Mavis Staples celebrating a successful recording session.
Greg McKean

In 2012, Helm’s throat cancer returned, and he died from the disease on April 19 of that year at age 71. For his work in The Band, Levon Helm was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Classic Americana Playlist

Levon Helm Studios – official site