Remembering Levon Helm

Yesterday, the world lost a music legend…Levon Helm. In the Arkansas Delta, where Levon was born and raised, his passing was like losing a family member. Whether you’d ever met Levon or not, in eastern Arkansas most people felt like they knew him because so many people in the area did. Around here, folks never said “Levon Helm,” it was always just “Levon.” And it differed. Some pronounced it “Lee-Von” others “Le-Von.” Regardless the pronunciation, everyone around “here” knew exactly who you were talking about.

Growing up, I knew the music of The Band, like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And I knew that Levon was raised in nearby Turkey Scratch, a small town located in both Lee and Phillips counties in eastern Arkansas. That fact made me love Levon’s music. Then, I saw him in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” playing Loretta Lynn’s father. Seeing that movie made me realize that he possessed one of the most distinctive speaking voices I’d ever heard.

But then, I had the pleasure of meeting Levon for the first time – and my love for the man was “born.” Levon and his daughter, Amy, played at the reopening of the Delta Cultural Center in May 2000. I met him at the front door of the museum and introduced myself. His response…”Hello, little darlin’! Nice to meet you.” That was it for me…my adoration for Levon Helm kicked into high gear. Spending the day around this legendary musician and hearing his stories of the Arkansas Delta is something I’ll never forget.

Amy and her band, Ollabelle, performed at one of the museum’s gospel festivals a few years later and I enjoyed talking to her about her father’s memories of Turkey Scratch, Marvell and Helena. She seemed to love Arkansas, no doubt a love brought on by stories her father shared.

When Levon was at the museum back in 2000, one of the first people he wanted to see was his friend and host of “King Biscuit Time,” the legendary “Sunshine” Sonny Payne. Mr. Sonny still broadcasts KBT from the Delta Cultural Center. He and Mr. Sonny sat down and “caught up” and Levon told me that he would skip school and go and watch Mr. Sonny broadcast the radio show when he was in high school. When I heard that news of Levon’s death yesterday, I called Mr. Sonny and asked if he would talk to me a little bit about Levon. This is what Mr. Sonny had to say:

“A lot of people don’t know that Levon loved the Blues. He got the “hang” of it by listening to the King Biscuit Boys. Once he asked me to ask Peck (drummer for the King Biscuit Boys, James “Peck” Curtis) if he could sit in for a song. I told him I wouldn’t do that because Peck already knew what they would be playing. I went into the next room to get some information off the AP machine and when I came back, there was Levon, sitting at the drums. Peck told me then that he was a great drummer.”

“Levon undoubtedly is one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard of any genre,” said Sonny. “He made love to the song…and it made love right back to him. You can’t duplicate people like him – they only come around once in a lifetime.”
Mr. Sonny and I aren’t the only ones with deep appreciation and affection for Levon. This statement from former President Bill Clinton was released today. “I was saddened to learn of the death of my fellow Arkansan Levon Helm. Levon was one of America’s great musicians. His music, with the Hawks, the Band, and throughout his career, and his standout performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter, touched a cord with me and with many Americans. He never forgot his roots. I was always grateful that he helped the annual (King Biscuit) Blues Festival get off the ground. He will be deeply missed.”

The world lost a distinctive voice yesterday, but in the Arkansas Delta, it almost felt like we lost a relative. Levon Helm was more than an amazing singer, musician, actor and writer. He was a true son of the Arkansas Delta and he not only remembered where he came from, he embraced it. That is evident in his most recent music. So many people will miss him, but thankfully, we have his music and movies to preserve that beautiful, unique voice.

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