‘Should Never Have Taken the Very Best’

Singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with The Band, musician Levon Helm drove home for American audiences that rock and roll was born in the rural South.

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Editor’s Note: Levon Helm died Thursday. He was 71. Levon Helm (named Mark Lavon at birth) is best known as the drummer for The Band. He also played Loretta Lynn’s father in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. Levon Helm was born in the Arkansas Delta and his music came straight from there. Below is an excerpt from his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire. 

Waterboy! Hey, waterboy!

That’s my cue. It’s harvesttime, 1947, and I’m the seven-year-old waterboy on my daddy Diamond Helm’s cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. My dad and mom are working in the fields along with some migrant laborers we’d hired, seasonals up from Mexico. My older sister, Modena, is back at the house watching my younger sister, Linda, and my baby brother, Wheeler.

Since I’m still too young for Diamond to sit me on the tractor, my job is to keep everyone hydrated. I got a couple of good metal pails, and I work that hand pump until the water runs clear and cold. I run back and forth between the pump house and the turn row, where the people drink their fill under a shady tree limb. I learned early on that the human body is a water-cooled engine.

It was hard work. The temperature was usually around a hundred degrees that time of year. But that’s how I started out, carrying water to relieve the scorching thirst that comes from picking cotton in the heat and rich delta dust….

Think of endless cotton fields, gravel roads, groves of pecan trees, canebrakes, bayous, pump houses, kudzu vines, sharecroppers’ cabins, tenant farmhouses, flooded rice fields, the biggest sky in the world, and the nearby Mississippi, like an inland sea with its own weather system. Think 110 degrees in the shade in the summertime. Cotton country. We were cotton farmers.

Leo Kulinski, Jr., via GQ
Helm was best known as drummer and singer with The Band; he never liked that name for the group and had recommended “The Crackers.”

Cotton was labor-intensive even after the Civil War, with the result that Phillips County lies in what used to be called the Black Belt, meaning the population is maybe 80 percent African-American. That’s why the delta is known for its music. The sound of the blues, rhythm and blues, country music, is what we lived for, black and white alike. It gave you strength to sit on one of those throbbing Allis-Chalmers tractors all day if you knew you were gonna hear something on the radio or maybe see a show that evening….

People called my daddy by his middle name, Diamond Helm. In 1932 he was a twenty-two year-old cotton farmer during the week and a musician and entertainer on the weekend. Diamond played guitar in a little band with some friends at house parties that charged two bits a head for dancing. They had white lightning in quart fruit jars — you only need to inhale the vapors, and it’d make your hair hang down.

Diamond met Wheeler Wilson’s beautiful blond daughter Nell at one of these parties. They were married on June 9, 1933, at the Baptist church in Elaine. My sister Modena was born a year or so after that, and I came along in the spring of 1940. I was baptized Mark Lavon Helm.

Ahron R. Foster, via New York Magazine
Levon Helm, second from left, with his daughter Amy at right, producer Larry Campbell and singer Teresa Williams. Helm released Dirt Farmer in 2007.

Not long after that, Nell and Diamond moved to a tiny rural farming community called Midway, because our long dirt road intersected with the hard gravel road about midway between the village of Turkey Scratch and the town of Marvell, all about twenty miles west of Helena. My younger sister, Linda, was born two years after me, with my baby brother, Wheeler, waiting several years after that to make his appearance.

So that’s where we grew up, way back off the hard road, miles through the cotton fields, almost all the way to Big Creek. Don’t even think about electricity. We might have used a battery-powered radio until I was ten years old. Our nearest neighbors were Clyde and Arlena Cavette and their three girls, Mary, Tiny, and Jessie Mae. Their farm was just a couple of miles away, and our families shared two sets of intermarried relatives, so we were all raised together as closely as possible, and Mary is still my closest friend….

This was during the war, and cotton production was at its height. All day and night the freight trains carrying bales and cotton seed oil came rolling down the Cotton Belt, and I ran to see every freight that went by. My cousins would hold me down to tease me, and I’d fight ’em off just so I wouldn’t miss seeing that freight.

Elliott Landy/When You Awake
The Band retreated to rural West Saugerties, New York, to compose the songs for their first LP Music from Big Pink, 1968, and record with Bob Dylan the music released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.

Back at home, we were a musical family. Mama sang in a clear alto voice, and Dad and I sang together as far back as I can remember. He liked all kinds of music and taught me “Sitting on Top of the World” when I was four years old. All us kids remember sitting on his lap in the evenings when he relaxed in his chair. He’d sing to us and affectionately rub our hands with his rough farmer’s fingers until we’d get calluses on our knuckles. My father knew so many songs, he was like a fountain of music….

Going to music shows was high-level entertainment for our family. They’d set up tents at the edge of Marvell and have a stage, folding chairs, and refreshments. 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 known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody…..

That was the end of cowboys and Indians for me. When I got home I held the broom sideward and strutted past the barn, around the pump, and out to the watermelon patch, pretending to play the guitar. I was hooked….

Levon Helm, at right, sang and played mandolin, guitar and drums with The Band. The group is shown here during The Last Waltz, their final performance in 1976, with (l-r)  Richard Manuel playing slide guitar, Robbie Robertson on guitar, Rick Danko on cello, Helm, and Garth Hudson on keyboards. All the band members were multi-instrumentalists.

In 1950 I won first place in our school’s talent contest with my hambone act, slapping my hands against my legs and rapping out “Little Body Rinktum Ti-mee-oh.” This routine came right from home and the family musicals around the supper table at the end of the day. I had my little guitar, J.D. had a mandolin, and everyone sang. When I was about twelve I made my sister Linda a string bass out of a washtub, a broomstick, and some cord. Right from the start Linda could really hold a bass line, and I slapped my things, played harmonica and Jew’s harp, and we both sang old songs we’d learned at home and new songs from the hit parade…

It was the Arkansas 4-H circuit that really helped us take off. Just about all the farm kids I knew were in the 4-H Club because it was the way country kids got to travel around. We’d raise livestock (I grew and shucked my own corn to feed to my projects) and take them to shows and fairs and get to meet other kids like ourselves. I’d usually bring a steer or a hog that I’d raised, and enter the tractor-driving contest and the talent show with my sister….

Morris Gist,  owner operator of Gist Music Store in Helena, Arkansas, where Helm bought records, heard music, and his father bought him his first real guitar.

When I was fourteen my daddy took me back to Mr. Gist’s music store in Helena to get a real guitar. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the streets were packed with people in from the farms, migrants, and local people. Phillips County used to be the tenth most populous county in Arkansas, and you’d see all kinds of folks.

When most people think of the Mississippi Delta, they think in terms of black and white, Anglo-Saxon and African-American. But it wasn’t completely like that. From its earliest days the area around Helena was more like a melting pot. Chinese families had grocery stores, Jewish families were in the cotton business, Lebanese people kept stores. Mexican farmhands meant you always heard Spanish. The Delta was positively multicultural.

Morris Gist’s music store was one of the places where all the various cultures met. Mr. Gist supplied instruments to several generations of musicians, maintained the jukeboxes in our area, and was then involved in distributing records cut by a hot young Memphis disc jockey on WDIA named B. B. King. Mr. Gist was also Sonny Boy Williamson’s landlord.

Daddy and I went up to the counter, greeted Mr. Gist, and I heard J.D. say, “Morris, we’d like to see the Martin guitar there for my boy Lavon.”

 

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