By Nathan Thomas
George Washington High School
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Levon Helm, rock music's best singing drummer, passed away Thursday afternoon at age 71. Helm, mainly known for his work with The Band, had battled throat cancer for more than 10 years. It was the end of an extraordinary life.
Many fans and rock critics have called The Band's music the most American sounding music ever to be recorded. The irony of this is that out of its five members, Helm was the only American. The rest were Canadian musicians he met in the late 1950s/early 1960s when he was performing with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins.
After splitting with Hawkins, the band played as Levon and the Hawks and was invited to join Bob Dylan's 1966 world tour. It was the first tour where Dylan was joined by a backing band. He would also be joined by worldwide boos that the acoustic troubadour was selling out.
Helm didn't hear these boos, though. He quit the band after the American leg of the tour and instead worked on an oilrig south of New Orleans. When the tour ended and Dylan made Woodstock, N.Y., his home, Helm returned to the group, where they made history as The Band.
Of my 16 years on this planet, The Band has been my favorite band for 10 of them. They've helped me through the roughest times of my life and made the good moments even better.
It's all thanks to seeing Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz," which documented The Band's final concert with its original line-up in 1976, when I was just 6 years old. I've still got my original copy of the DVD. It's scratched but it still plays on.
This is fitting, considering in the early 1980s The Band reunited (minus original guitarist Robbie Robertson) and toured with the Grateful Dead. Even after piano player/singer Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1985, Helm and The Band played on.
The reunited version of The Band ended permanently in 1999 when bassist Rick Danko died in his sleep. After the passing of his band mate and the news of his throat cancer, many believed Helm didn't have much left in him. They were wrong.
Joined by his daughter, Amy, and former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, he returned to the studio in 2007 and recorded the album "Dirt Farmer," which included songs he grew up with. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
The 2009 follow-up, "Electric Dirt," also won a Grammy, this time for Best Americana Album. It was the first award ever given out in that category. In 2012, Helm won in that category again, this time for a live album called "Ramble at the Ryman."
When The Band reunited in the 1980s, they recorded a cover of Bruce Springsteen's song "Atlantic City." Helm sang, "Everything dies, that's a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back."
I hope it's true.