Levon Helm and I had never met, nor had I ever seen him play. But our lives Venn diagrammed in 2005 when I began working on my first recording at a studio in a converted auto garage in the backwater marshlands of south jersey. The project before us had been one of the last Dixie Hummingbird recordings, a gospel group from Philadelphia whose most pop culture claim to fame was singing Loves Me Like A Rock with Paul Simon. But if you went deeper, you’d find that the Dixie Hummingbirds were a serious staple of American music and anyone of the same mind, that is, with a deep sense of peace and place in that gospel tradition, wanted to be a part. Levon played drums on that last recording, so weeks before we set up for our sessions, he had been playing in the same live room and to me, all the musical history that preceded had leaked in. I was giddy to be breathing in that same musical air, putting sounds into the same microphones and sharing a sacred space. To be part of that tradition, more than autographs and handshakes, has always been my motivation.
Sometimes I imagine America as a grand piece of fabric and the musical history as a lovely rich dye and picture dipping the bottom of it into this liquid and seeing it seep up and out, into tributaries and cities, making its wild way. Levon resided for a good deal of his impressionistic youth down south where this reaction had its first contact. I do believe he, whether intentionally or by the default of his joyous pursuits, became a prime transmitter of this history but he also was so free in himself so as to play like no one else. He, and the band in general, has made me want to defy mediocrity and put something of myself into the world. The best always make you feel this way.
So even though I never got the chance in person, I am always greeting the spirit of Levon Helm with my music. In the joy of it. In my respect for its journey. In my ever seeking connection to listeners. In my continuing observance of this life around me.
All of us went to the tribute last night to celebrate and meditate on what he had such a huge part of bringing into this world. For, how could we not reflect back our respects like an ocean illuminated by the sun and moon?