Levon Helm's Loved Ones Honor His Legacy

Levon Helm, who died on April 19, experienced an astonishing career resurgence all due to a tight-knit inner circle, including his daughter Amy, his manager Barbara O'Brien, and guitarist Larry Campbell, who all rallied around to help the legend when he was broke and in danger of losing everything.

His redemptive third act began at a time when he was without a voice (from surgery to remove cancer from his throat), in bankruptcy, and deeply indebted to the bank which held the mortgage on his home.

But the million dollar question remains: how could a living legend, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, world renowned drummer, whose soulful southern twang lent credibility to such standards like "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Up on Cripple Creek," end up with nothing?

Helm's life after The Band split was checkered; there were periods of activity when he landed movie roles, playing Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter and test pilot Jack Riddley in The Right Stuff.

He married Sandy Dodd in 1981 and continued to make great music, with Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars and his old friends The Cate Brothers. But a series of bad business decisions, a fire in Helm's barn, and some personal setbacks followed.

The Band eventually reunited, toured, and recorded, sans Robertson, but their lack of financial success and being relegated to playing much smaller venues took its emotional toll on the group. Keyboardist and vocalist Richard Manuel, who had been battling personal demons, hanged himself in his hotel room after a show in Winter Park, Florida and when bassist and vocalist Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999, The Band ceased to exist.

"I'm sure there were periods of darkness but I saw a positive guy all the time," said Happy Traum, a friend of Helm's and Woodstock neighbor since the late '60s.

"He was just always striving to see the positive side of things. When his barn burned down he said, 'Well, we'll just build a better one'; When he got sick in '98 he said, 'Whatever life I got left I'll just build a better Levon'; That attitude was pretty amazing to me."

Helm managed to stay afloat but there were some very serious financial issues that weren't going to go away, and by the end of 2003 he was out of options. Then with his home in foreclosure, he made a phone call that would change his life.

Barbara O'Brien, the administrative assistant for the Ulster County Sheriff, was well aware of Levon Helm's bankruptcy and foreclosure troubles but she wasn't yet clear about what he wanted from her the day she spoke to Helm on the phone. Yet she gladly accepted his invitation to visit him.

O'Brien, 58, got to know Helm when she became active in local Woodstock politics when holding various fundraisers benefiting military families. Helm was always the first one to volunteer and provide music for events.

"He had it in his mind that I was going to work there before I agreed to come over," laughed O'Brien who recalled the first time she went to Helm's studio.

"He literally walked me around in his unfinished basement with a flashlight saying, 'We'll put your desk there, put a phone here, a computer.' I had absolutely no idea about what he wanted me to do. On the other hand, I couldn't bear the thought of him getting kicked out because he couldn't pay his bills.

One of the first things she did was help Helm organize the first rent parties in 2004, live shows in his three-story barn's studio so he could begin paying off his debts. She also helped him consolidate all of his bills, and stave off the vultures from the bank.

They began calling the rent party performances, "The Midnight Ramble" after the tent shows he enjoyed as a kid.

With O'Brien's help he could finally organize his life in a way to bring in money and build a business around the Rambles.

The next step was building a band, a task which fell into the hands of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.

"As soon as I left Bob Dylan's band in 2004, Levon called me and said, "Come up and let's make some music,' Campbell told us.

"All he wanted to do was make good music and have a good time doing it, with no other agenda involved. If we made some money, great -- and certainly starting these Rambles was an attempt to get himself out of debt -- but the means to that end was only about playing music you enjoyed playing.

A list of people that Helm really admired in the industry wound up playing the Rambles: Allen Toussaint, Kris Kristofferson, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Louvin, John Hiatt, Robbie Dupree, Ralph Stanley, Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and many more.

He recorded Dirt Farmer in 2007, followed by Electric Dirt in 2009, and then Ramble at the Ryman in 2012. All three recordings won Grammys.

On Saturday, March 31, Levon Helm meandered, in his own perfect rhythm, onto a stage for the very last time to play a Ramble. He complained earlier that night of a serious headache and backache but didn't want to disappoint his old friends in Los Lobos who were co-headlining that night.

Tony LoBue, Helm's Ramble manager and web developer, shared his recollections about the last show.

"So, he played and when we got in the house afterward he said to me, 'Tony, I wasn't on my game tonight. I just couldn't do it. It hurt.'"

Helm checked into the hospital soon after.

Before he died on April 19, 2012 Helm gave specific instructions from his hospital bed to Amy, Campbell, and O'Brien to carry on the tradition of the Ramble. His exact words were, "Keep it goin."

"He's gone, we miss him, and we wish he was back," said Campbell .

"But we all realized how wonderful this thing was and what a shame it would be to let it dissipate and it's certainly what we got from his spirit. But we own it now. We're as qualified to do this as we ever were because we've absorbed the magic that Levon gave us."

"He was just the happiest guy the last years of his life because he was getting accolades from fans, respect from his fellow musicians and very fulfilling musical output," Traum said.

"Also, his very positive association with his daughter Amy -- that was such a strong and palpably fulfilling thing for him. To see him onstage with her singing you could just see the pride in his eyes."

In addition to putting on more Rambles, the eventual goal is to secure the property ($900,000 still left to pay on the mortgage) and develop it into a music center, a place where children could receive musical instruction, where musicians could interact with other musicians, and attend workshops and master classes.

"I think there's an incredible joy in trying to live up to my father's musical legacy, for me and a lot of other musicians," said Amy who is now on tour to promote her debut her solo album.

"He set a high mark of having a relentless joy and passion and just pure groove and spirit in his musicianship and I think that's what people responded to in him, and living up to that. I try to emulate and aim for that in my own music.

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