Levon Helm was one of the last of a kind, a multi-faceted musical talent who was also was 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 their 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.
Here are the impossibly hard-to-pin-down ten most essential tracks by the Band.
10. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (The Band, 1969)
An anthem for the working class, this song tells the woebegone tale of a poor country farmer, desolate over the loss of his crops and seeking refuge from a fast-talking “Union” man, offering hopes for redemption: “And he comes a man with a paper and pen / Tellin’ us our hard times are about to end.” The song brilliantly showcases the tremendous interplay between the musicians while also demonstrating the various vocal ranges present as Manuel anchors the upper register of the verses while Danko and Helm balance things out with low-end harmonizing on the chorus.
9. “Look Out Cleveland” (The Band, 1969)
A true homage to the Band’s roadhouse beginnings that took place under the tutelage of Ronnie Hawkins, this song slinks along anchored by Helm’s strong backbeat and Manuel’s flourishing piano notes. Close your eyes and you can picture them in a smoky club somewhere on a nondescript weeknight bringing the rock show to those brave souls willing to step out and seek it out. “Look out Cleveland / Storm is coming through / And it’s running right up on you / Look out Houston / They’ll be thunder on the hill / Bye bye baby don’t you lay so still.”
8. “Stage Fright” (Stage Fright, 1970)
The title track to the Band’s third album, this song stands as a staple track on all of the group’s anthologies. In interviews, Helm debunked the common perception that this song served as Robertson’s attempts at expressing his own fears of the stage. Whatever motives lied behind the writing though, the song has an undeniable musicality, with all five members pounding away at their instruments like there’s no tomorrow, offering up years of hard-worn live practice as evidence of their abilities and focus. It’s a song that demands multiple repeats while listening to the album.
7. “The Shape I’m In” (Stage Fright, 1970)
Another standout from the Stage Fright album, this song on the surface seems quite simple. But like with most Band tracks, it contains lots of hidden imagery and ambiguous questions. Is it about the daily demons that were being constantly battled by the tune’s mercurial singer Richard Manuel? Is it a fight for survival or an angry and defiant declaration from the depths of a personal hell? The lyrics also allude to the desperation of the times, when assassinations, riots, and civil unrest became prevalent and America moved forward in its journey for civil rights and personal freedoms: “Save your neck or save your brother / Looks like it’s one or the other / Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in.” The times were chaotic and an “every man for himself” mentality became a popular mantra.
6. “Yazoo Street Scandal” (The Basement Tapes, 1975)
Band scholar Barney Hoskyns calls Helm’s lead vocal here a “redneck-wildcat yelp”, and that description aptly proves why no one else in the Band could do this song justice. Based on a real Yazoo Street in Helm’s homeland of Arkansas, lyricist Robertson throws everything at the wall: Biblical allusions, colloquial charms, and hints of sexual shenanigans. Appearing both on Dylan’s The Basement Tapes and the Band’s debut LP Music From Big Pink, the song is one of those more obscure Band gems that sneaks up on you but leaves a lasting impression.