Story by Richard Ledbetter
Mark Lavon (Levon) Helm was born in Turkey Scratch May 26, 1940. From that tiny Southeast Arkansas burg, he went on to worldwide fame with his rock group, “The Band.” Along with fellow members Jamie Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, the boys made their bones in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s working for popular Huntsville rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins. The quintet caught the attention of acoustic folk musician Bob Dylan who hired them in ’66 as his touring band upon deciding to forsake folk in pursuit of broader horizons as an electrified rock & roller.
Following Dylan’s severe motorcycle crash in ’67, he moved the group into a pink, split-level house in Woodstock, New York. During his recuperation, they worked up and recorded songs for his “John Wesley Harding” record. During that period, Dylan helped the group write and record their debut Capital Records L.P., which was released to critical acclaim in 1968 as “Music From Big Pink.” For their first album, the four Canadians and one Arkie adopted the name Dylan often used in reference to them, “The Band.”
Helm performed lead vocals on several Top 40 radio hits from their self-titled second album including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Momma Rag” and “Up On Cripple Creek.” He also played drums and occasionally displayed his stringed talents on mandolin. Their sophomore effort reached #30 on Billboard’s album chart.
The Band recorded eight L.P.’s and rejoined their mentor Dylan on “The Basement Tapes,” “Planet Waves” and “Before the Flood.”
In 1980, Helm took up screen acting, performing feature roles in several full-length motion pictures. After touring the world for decades, he returned to Woodstock, settling down in upstate New York. In 1993, he co-penned an autobiographical sketch with Stephen Davis titled, “This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.”
But he never forgot his Phillips County roots. He knew as early as age six he wanted to become a professional musician; taking up guitar by the time he was eight. He credited his love of performing from early exposure to local blues great Sonny Boy Williamson and his drummer, James “Peck” Curtis. Coming to town with his family on Saturdays, Helm would slip away to Helena’s KFFA radio studio, watching the live King Biscuit Time broadcast through a plate glass window.
At 71, Helm passed away April 19, 2012. Although gone, the “Midnight Rambler” is “too well-loved to ever be forgotten.” 2017 Arkansas Act 810 designated U.S. Highway 49 from Helena to Marvell as “The Levon Helm Memorial Highway.”
The sharecropper shack where Helm was born had been moved from its original foundations in Turkey Scratch to the Palmer Farm on Hwy. 49 near the Louisiana Purchase State Park between Helena and Marvell. More recently, it was again relocated to the corner of Carruth and Elm Streets in downtown Marvell as part of “The Levon Helm Memorial Park.”
Due to the structure being twice relocated from where it was built, it doesn’t qualify for the National Registry of Historic Places. However, in a much-deserved act of reverence, by an August 1 unanimous board vote, the Helms home was added to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places.
Addition onto the register is largely due the work of UCA instructor of interior design and long-time fan of The Band, Ann Ballard Bryan. During the previous fall semester, she assigned five students to draw up plans for repurposing the shack as a café, museum and sound stage. She simultaneously tasked her historic-preservation class with drafting a nomination for the Historic Register.
Mark Christ, spokesperson for Arkansas Historic Preservation Program said, “We are very excited to have been a part of the process in recognizing the single site most associated with one of Arkansas’ most famous musicians.”
The history of the memorial began around 2013 when the Marvell Civic Club initiated a movement to bring the Helm’s home to their city. A second movement by The Arkansas Musical Legacy Fund was underway at the same time to erect a seven-foot-high by five-foot-wide bronze placard on the Helena levee titled, “Bronze for Levon.”
Over time, the two entities adjusted and combined their efforts to arrive at the current goal of the park in Marvell.
In lieu of the large bronze plaque in Helena, the Bronze for Levon faction settled on a smaller, tasteful bust of the iconic drummer. The developing park will soon host a newly completed bronze of its namesake. The impressive sculpture is the work of Little Rock artist Kevin Kresse. The statuary is a trademark image of Helm, sticks in hand, playing drums and singing into a boomed microphone.
Because Helm resided in Springdale during the 1980’s, an initial unveiling is scheduled for Fayetteville on October 12. The northwest Arkansas reveal is planned as a celebration of Helm’s life with a company of lifelong friends, family, fans and fellow musicians expected for the occasion. An appearance of the bust at Little Rock’s Ron Robinson Auditorium is also in the works for Oct.13 before the bronze arrives at its final destination in Marvell.
Early on in the fundraising process, a video filmed by Greg Spradlin was shot on the porch of the shack at its previous location on the Palmer Farm. It contains interviews with Levon’s daughter Amy along with childhood friends C.W. Gatlin, Anna Lee Williams-Amsden (made famous in the song “The Weight”) and Mary Cavette-Vaiden.
Some of their more notable comments were, “His home and heart were in the Delta soil. The people and the music here are what shaped him,” said Anna Lee.
Mary Cavette-Vaiden shared, “He always considered this his home and he’d call and want to talk about when they were turning the dirt over and what it smelled like.”
Amy Helm said of her father, “His lack of self-consciousness translated to a powerful charisma, making him incredible to watch. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. If you were at a show there was no separation from the audience and the band. I think he will really smile down on the memorial.”
In a sidebar to the front porch scenes, Conan O’Brian’s bandleader Jimmy Vivino said, “When Levon sings, it’s the voice of America. You believe every word because he never sang an insincere verse on any of his records.”
Videographer Spradlin commented in a recent conversation, “What’s been so interesting to me is the whole project is a labor of love by Levon’s friends in Arkansas. Some have been here from the beginning and others fell in along the way.”
During many return trips to his home state, Helm often teamed with Fayetteville musicians and Arkansas Entertainer Hall of Fame inductees, Earl and Ernie Cate of “Cate Brothers” fame. Earl Cate and his current band “Earl and Them” are slated to open for Amy Helm at George’s in Fayetteville the same evening as the bronze unveiling.
Earl told SEA Life, “He was definitely one of a kind, a great guy with a lot of charisma. He treated everybody like he’d known you all your life. He helped us a lot through the years; in fact, got us the best record deal we ever had. We met back in ’62 when they were playing with Ronnie Hawkins as his band ‘The Hawks.’ Levon’s folks had moved to Springdale, so he always came in to visit them and would come see us play when he was in town. In ’67, he sat in with us on drums a couple of gigs when we didn’t have a steady drummer. He’d drop by the music store where I worked and one day came in and told me he was heading up to Woodstock to work on a record they had signed to do with Capital. That was ‘Music From Big Pink.’ After ‘The Band’ broke up, he started leaning on us pretty heavy as his band. He was always a treat to behold. A true personality.”
In later years, Helm recorded three Grammy-winning solo albums in his upstate New York Levon Helm Studio. He also regularly hosted “Midnight Rambles” at that location. They were musical affairs where both famous and not-so-famous singers and songwriters came together once a month to jam for the pure love of good music. Cate said, “I went up to one of his Midnight Rambles and set in about 2008.”
Since Helm’s demise in 2012, the legendary gatherings continue monthly.
Perhaps his friend C.W. Gatlin said it best, “When I think of Levon I look at it this way, he had a big part to play and he played it well.”
To view the 2014 Greg Spradlin video, go to https://vimeo.com/185850431.
Learn more about The Levon Helm Memorial Park in Marvell at www.levonhelmmemorial.org or look them up on Facebook. There is also a GoFundMe account for contributions toward the developing project.