Levon Helm’s Love of Bluegrass

This remembrance of Levon Helm is a contribution from Happy Traum, co-founder of Homespun Music Instruction.

“The first show I remember was Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys on a summer evening in 1946, when I was six years old. Boy, this really tattooed my brain. I’ve never forgotten it. Bill had a real good five-piece band. They took that old hillbilly music, sped it up, and basically invented what is now bluegrass music…. We heard Bill Monroe regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, but here he was in the flesh. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in the band when I saw them.”

Levon Helm in his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire

When Levon Helm was growing up a farmer’s son in rural Marvell, Arkansas, he heard and was enthralled by all kinds of music: the blues of Sonny Boy Williamson, the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley, the gospel songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe – and the bluegrass of Bill Monroe. All of these influences, and many others, were eventually incorporated into the sound that won him millions of fans and three consecutive grammy Awards in the recently coined “Americana” genre. The music of the Band, one of America’s most influential rock groups, was shaped and shaded by his Southern country roots and the hard-scrabble upbringing that he never failed to embrace.

Levon had a lifelong love of bluegrass music. Just this past winter he hosted Bobby Osborne’s band as guests at his Midnight Ramble show. Sam Bush played with him on several occasions, and was a big favorite of his. I know he was also a big fan of Del McCoury and, closer to home, he loved the late John Herald of the Greenbrier Boys, the Northeast’s best “high lonesome” bluegrass singer. At John Herald’s memorial concert in Woodstock, and again at my brother Artie’s service, Levon, along with his daughter Amy, Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell, sang one of his favorite songs, the Stanley Brothers’ Angel Band.

Levon’s CDs reflected the strains of music he grew up on, but he made a conscious decision on Dirt Farmer to incorporate several of the old songs and country ballads: False Hearted Lover, Little Birds, The Girl Left Behind, Single Girl, Married Girl and Blind Child. The remaining songs could have been traditional even thought they were recently written. On Electric Dirt Levon sings Carter Stanley’s White Dove, and he turns my own attempt at a “traditional” song, Golden Bird, into a fiddle backed, haunting cry that seems to come out of the dimly-remembered past.

We lost Levon on April 19 at the age of 71. His passing leaves an unimaginably huge hole in our community, in the music world at large and in my own life – we were friends for 40 years. His soulful voice, incomparable backbeat and infectious grin will be missed by anyone who was touched by his music, but his songs will be sung as long as there are people to sing them.