Throat cancer claimed a true musical icon last week. Levon Helm was one of the last of a kind, a multi-faceted musical talent who was also was generally present for the founding of rock and roll. Before achieving fame as part of the Band, Helm grew up in rural Arkansas, where he absorbed many of the southern, cultural idiosyncrasies that would influence both his songwriting and musical maturation. He was there to witness the genre’s forefathers: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He took up the drums, then guitar and mandolin, and soon was off traveling the globe as part of rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins’s band. It was there he met Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, solidifying a musical partnership that would lead them to back Bob Dylan during his most controversial period as a performer (though the constant booing sent Helm home early), but that would also allow them to further explore the rustic histories of past musical traditions, constantly fiddling with the formula until a unique sound of their own was honed and perfected.
The Band made seven albums in its heyday, ranging from spectacular knockouts to tolerable mixed bags. When the classic lineup went its separate ways after The Last Waltz concert in 1976, Helm dabbled in acting and played with reunion lineups, but continued to make magic from a musical perspective, starting a series of Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock home that played host to some of the better known names of the rock community while also cementing Helm’s legacy as a musical patriarch and also one heck of a nice guy.
As the heartfelt tributes to Helm continue to pour in—with everyone from old collaborators Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, and Larry Campbell to the keepers of the flame he inspired like Patterson Hood, Jeff Tweedy, and Taylor Goldsmith offering their memories, condolences, and tributes—here is a tribute of our own: the impossibly hard-to-pin down ten most essential tracks by Helm’s own, the Band.