Levon Helm, friend of bluegrass, passes

After having shared news earlier in the week that his health was rapidly failing, word comes this afternoon from his family that influential Americana artist Levon Helm has passed away today at 71 years of age. He had been fighting throat cancer since an initial diagnosis more than ten years ago.

Helm is most commonly remembered for his work with The Band, who had quite a run in the late 1960s and ’70s, originally as the road band for Bob Dylan, and with a string of pop hits after going out on their own.

Though not a bluegrass musician by any stretch, Helm was a good friend to traditional music of every kind, and had been very supportive of bluegrass acts like Lonesome River Band and Steep Canyon Rangers. His voice will be recognizable from songs that have made their way into the repertoire of many a bluegrass and jam grass band, like Up On Cripple Creek, The Weight, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Graham Sharp, banjo player with Steep Canyon Rangers, recalls Helm as a powerful force.

“It’s really sad about Levon; when we were there a couple months ago everyone was hopeful about his latest round of treatment. I would say he’s lived as full a life as most could ever hope, though.

Traditional music was always the backbone of Levon’s sound. When we met you could tell how much he loved bluegrass and how closely he could identify with it. He really is a giant and is largely responsible for the traditional string element of what’s now called Americana.”

Here is video of Steep Canyon Rangers jamming with Helm and a number of his musical friends in February 2012.

Rest in peace, Levon Helm.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.