I can’t even begin to get good words around how much this man’s voice and musicality meant to me, and how much his work colored my sense of American music. From West Helena, Arkansas to the world.
We’re now filming the last episode of the third season of Treme. In the original beat sheet for that episode, there is a story arc in which one of our characters performs with Helm and his band in Woodstock, at one of his legendary Midnight Rambles. Helm himself had conversations with one of our producers about the possibility. And having had the chance to attend one such Ramble in his barn there, I wanted it to happen badly. Those homemade concerts were pretty damn magical, and I relished the thought of using the drama to cast a little more light on Helm and what he meant to roots rock’n’roll.
A couple months ago, we got word that Helm had again stopped singing, and, too, we had exhausted a good chunk of our travel budget for the production. We published the script without the Levon Helm scene this week, but still hoped we’d get a chance to do it if we had the good fortune to get a fourth and concluding season for the drama. Then the news.
“Rag Mama Rag,” was the song we wanted. Helm on mandolin and vocals, Lucia Micarelli playing fiddle.
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Here it is February 17, 2019, and I just finished watching Season 3 of “Treme” for the first time. My heart skipped a beat when Annie’s agent said he was going to take her up to Woodstock to see Levon Helm. The words of adulation for Levon your writers put in the agent’s mouth were so gratifying to hear. Levon, his music, and his book, THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE, changed my life. What a wonderful gift it was to hear this “Treme” character pay tribute to him as part of your series on the great music and music giants of New Orleans and how so many of them got screwed by the Katrina aftermath. The last time I was in New Orleans, before I even knew your series existed, I made a personal pilgrimage to the site of Levon’s club at the corner of Decatur and Bienville, as well as several of the clubs and sites featured in your series, including The Blue Nile, The Spotted Car, Marigny, Bywater, Algiers, and the site of the Iberville Projects, formerly Storyville. Watching “Treme” is very nostalgic for me in so many ways, and Episode 7 of Season 3 really cemented it for me. Thank you for that. I have nothing but high praise for “Treme,” Only wish I had known about it when it first came out.
Hail, hail Levon. Yup.
Don’t you think it should have been “Down South in New Orleans,” a tune Levon did with the Band on The Last Waltz?
Marvell, Arkansas, not West Helena.
Sometime back in the ’90’s, during the winter, I was in New Orleans and walked past a club and at the open door I could hear that they were playing something by The Band–a record, to fill during the band’s break, so I walked in to listen. Levon Helm was sitting at a table by himself, just inside the door, almost as if he was collecting covers and checking i.d.’s.
It turned out that he owned the club, or at least was fronting for the owner. I managed not to make a fool of myself and just gave him a nod and got one back. When the break was over, he and a bunch of guys I’d never heard of got up on the bandstand and played a solid hour. It was one of those New Orleans events for me.
On Decauter, at the corner of Bienville, just up from the HOB and the Weirlein’s music store. Co-owned it with Banu Gibson.
I saw him play drums in there on a set of Chicago blues.
I just read your post on Levon Helm. I have been a fan of yours for many years. Read your book Homicide, and for a long time felt that the TV show was the best thing I had ever seen on the tube. Until the Wire. But now I am completely addicted to Treme. In it you go deeper, characters more finely drawn. It’s still very political but I feel the writing and productions have gone on to another level, and you’ve hit my sweet spot. Love of New Orleans and roots music. Which brings me to Levon and The Band. I have been a Band addict since i came on them by accident in the late 60’s @ the concerts in Central Park. My friend told my about “a Canadian girl singer who wrote “Both Sides Now” i agreed to go. Opening up for Joanie was a group just called The Band. When I saw the wall of instruments and listened to the mix of blues, gospel, country, rock n roll, pour from the stage I was hooked for life. I agree with George Harrison’s assessment, the best Rock n Roll band of all time.
In the first part of this century I became aware of Levon’s struggles and amazing comeback. When my wife asked me a few years back what I wanted for my 60th I said, “let’s go to a Midnight Ramble”. As you wrote it was magical. From the drive up the dirt road, to the scamper for the best folding chair to the anticipation of the sweetest and truest music one can imagine, the night went on from 8 to 1. As Marc Cohn sang “I was still listening to Levon” and watching the joy of music beam out of his smile to the congregation. As I said to my wife now this is what religion was supposed to do. I remember the tease in Treme 3 when the idea of scoring some tickets to the Ramble came up and was anticipating the visit. Sadly it was not meant to be, but if any venue could have communicated the magic of the barn Treme could have. This weekend I am going to see Ain’t in it for my Health” up in Portsmouth and remember that night. Thanks for what you do.
It was religious. You are right to say so.
The First Church of Levon. Now in diaspora, sadly.
I love reading your articles, David Simon | Levon Helm has been added to my bookmarks in chrome.
In Newark last night, May 2nd, Bruce Springsteen pulled a sign out of the crowd that said “Play 1 for Levon – RIP”. Bruce then talked about Levon’s voice and how remarkable it was that he could sing so passionately while playing the drums. He then played for the first time ever a beautiful version of The Weight alone on acoustic guitar for the first verse and then his whole band joined in. It was a highlight of the whole show and really nice tribute to Mr. Helm. Already this morning, there are 4 or 5 copies of the song posted on YouTube, someone with Bruce’s whole heartfelt introduction. Check it out.
Will check it out, thx.
At jazzfest here in New Orleans, Springsteen brought Dr. John onstage and had the doctor take the lead on “Something You Got.” What was amusing, and a little charming, was how hard it was for Springsteen and the E Streeters to stop themselves from rushing the tempo. New Orleans R&B lives in that slow, second-line drag. That’s where the groove is. Took ’em half the song to get comfortable and find the pocket, which Springsteen readily confessed afterward.
“Rag Mama Rag” is a fantastic song for the fiddle, one of my favorites. I’m very sorry this didn’t come to pass. R.I.P. Levon, ramble on in heaven.
I wonder if you might ever consider using The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood” on TREME. It is probably too slow and soft for background music, but it is a beautiful song about the migration and history of the Cajun people and the lyrics are quite appropriate for the themes of the series. “They signed a treaty and our homes were taken, loved ones forsaken, they didn’t give a damn…”
Or heck, just listen to it if you never have before. It’s great. Thorough historical breakdown here: http://theband.hiof.no/articles/acadian_driftwood_viney.html
What an amazing musician and person the world has lost. I was only fortunate enough to see Levon play once but as Mr. Simon stated, it was definitely magical. Sadly, the irony of my life is that a majority of musicians I admire have passed (some before I was conceived) and I will never have the chance to experience their craft live. I’m extremely grateful that I was able to see Levon tear down the barn that night and it’s a memory that will never fade. I have been listening to The Band on vinyl these past few weeks predominantly after a long day of work and it’s ability to make me forget even for a moment the struggle for survival never ceases to amaze me. You will be missed brother, I’ll catch you on the flipside.
If you pour some music on whatever’s wrong, it’ll sure help out. – Levon Helm
David if you’re reading this, I would like to share an amazing story about how I lived with Levon and his wife. Please get in touch when you can.
Sounds great, but I’m on set filming the last ep of Treme 3 right now. Buried in that. Forgive me.
The irony, of course, would have been that Levon would have been pissed that Robbie Robertson was getting performance royalties as the sole member of The Band with a songwriting credit.
Still would have loved to have seen it.
The man and his music live in my soul. I don’t remember feeling like this since we lost John Lennon.
I decided (rather late in life) to take keyboard lessons. The instructor asked me to bring an example of my favorite playing. That was a month ago. I took “rag, momma, rag’ It doesn’t come any better.
I have not been able to stop listening to “Big Pink”… well, ever… but in particular in light of his passing. A giant among men. Thank you for honoring him here.
I got a phone call from a health care worker in Helena once and said, “One of my favorite musicians is from there. You must know Levon Helm.” He said, yes, I’ve had a drink with him. But pretty much everyone around here could say that too.
I got to shake Levon’s hand once, saw him play many, many times, and always felt like he was a friend to everyone he met.
Damn, that would have been so cool. Love both of them. And it might have been a more obvious choice, but I would have gone with Evangeline.