Down Home With...Levon Helm
It is late afternoon in Turkey Scratch, Ark., a pinpoint on the vast Mississippi Delta plain. About a dozen homes, tiny wood-frame atolls in a flat and endless sea of cotton fields, are scattered around a dirt-and-gravel crossroads, miles back from what the locals call the hard road. Far off in the open fields, enormous tractors breaking the rich loamy soil for April planting don't look much bigger than the mosquitoes that have just begun to swarm. To an outsider, this is forsaken land, plagued for generations by flood, drought, killer tornadoes and stifling heat that hits 110°F in June, without a hint of shade in sight.
Yet for Levon Helm, a local boy whose music has taken him all over the world, Turkey Scratch is about as close to heaven as you can get. "Yeah, by god, it's beautiful, ain't it?" says Helm, gazing over fields he plowed as a boy. "They're cuttin' that ground out there now. Smells good, don't it? I'll tell you what. This is good for the soul, that's for damn sure."
On a break from touring with his newly resurgent group, the Band, Helm, 53, has come back home, as he does once or twice a year, to see old friends and commune with that soul-stirring Delta landscape. Helm's late parents, Diamond and Nell, were local sharecroppers who wished something better for their son, and when Arkansas rocker Ronnie Hawkins wheeled his Model A Ford into Turkey Scratch in 1957 to recruit Helm, then 17, for his group, the Hawks, they gave their blessing.
A decade later the group, sans Hawkins, evolved into The Band, whose songs at once evoked and eulogized the rural American past. By then the only non-Canadian Band member, Helm provided the Deep South voice the group's music conjured. "It damn sure didn't all come from me," he says in an Arkansas drawl undiminished by nearly 30 years of living in the Yankee stronghold of Woodstock, N.Y. "But I did have the pleasure of steerin' it in that direction every now and then." Only three of the Band's original members remain—keyboard wizard Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and Helm, who plays drums. (Soulful vocalist and pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986, and Helm accuses Band songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson of taking sole credit for many collaboratively composed Band songs.) But on Jericho, the group's first studio album in 17 years, Helm's voice has lost none of its grit and world-weary grandeur.
Chatting now with a former neighbor, Helm stands near the site where the house he grew up in was hit by a tornado and "just cartwheeled over," as he puts it. "Landed in that field there," he says pointing toward freshly plowed ground beyond. Meanwhile, C.W. Gatlin, a local musician who picks guitars with Helm whenever he's in town, eyes the blackening sky warily. "This here's tornado weather we're looking al now," he says, swatting another mosquito. Above a wide band of silver light at the western horizon, an enormous storm cloud is rolling eastward. "Better get a move on there Lee-von," says another buddy, Danny "Possum" Campbell. "Thai thunder boomer's gonna be on us before ya know it."
Out on Arkansas Highway 49, where the hard road meets the gravel drive to Turkey Scratch, are the fairgrounds where Helm began his career, at age 10, with a ham-bone act, performing "Little Body Rinktum Ti-mee-oh" for his fellow 4-Hers. Down the road is the Marvell High School football field. "They'll put some scabs on ya there, boy," Helm says of the hard-hitting local brand of football. Whippet thin and built of sinew and wire by the looks of him, Levon was a defensive back for the Marvell Mustangs. "Hell, I didn't know what to do when we had the ball," Helm says. "If they had the ball, it was fun—try to tear his damn shoe off."
Driving fast back toward Helena, a Mississippi river port 20 miles east, in C.W.'s Bronco, Helm turns the talk to rock and roll—the music, he says, that was "born right here in the Delta. Damnedest thing I ever heard, puttin' that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland," says Helm, who was inducted in January. "Hell, it was invented here, then moved 50 miles upriver to Memphis. Music thrives here 'cause, outside of sports, it's all we got."
Later, over barbecue in a Helena restaurant—"pork or goat's best," Helm advises—he and his pals reverently tick off the names of some of the great bluesmen and rockers who lived in or near the dirt-poor Delta: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Elvis. Someone recalls that in high school Helm used to sit in with the Rock Housers, a band led by Harold Jenkins, who was soon to pioneer the new rockabilly sound as Conway Twitty. "Sorry to hear ol' Conway passed," says C.W. "Yessir," Helm says, shaking his head sadly, "he was a good 'un."
Helm remembers seeing Elvis play with "one of the best damn bands you ever heard," around the corner at the Catholic Club in late 1954. "The nuns wouldn't allow him to do his gyratin', " Helm says. "Elvis played rhythm guitar, though. Played it good too. Wasn't no prop back then." Another old friend of Helm's, Joe King, a former Helena cop now running a private security company, joins in. "My sister seen Elvis walk out of the pharmacy there by the Catholic Club that year," King says. "He was all dressed up and smokin' a big ol' cigar. Soon as he walked out, he threw up right there on the sidewalk."
"Musta been a While Owl," says C.W., and everyone howls.
The restaurant is just across the tracks from the levee Helm's daddy, Diamond, helped build to hold back the Mississippi in the 1920s. "It's flat as cow pie from here clear down lo New Orleans," Helm says. "Without the levee, we'd be underwater right now."
The storm finally hits. No tornadoes, but "a real Delta ground-soaker just the same," says Helm, as he drives across the river and heads north to the Memphis airport on Mississippi Highway 61. "I always enjoyed drivin' around and playin' music," he says, unfazed by the blinding sheets of water and lightning bolts exploding like gunshots in the cotton fields. "You can find a peace a mind that's hard to get settin' still."
As the rain slackens and a golden light on the horizon chases the storm east, Helm points out a rainbow in the clearing sky overhead. "Now look it that," he says. "Kinda makes it worth the fright back there, don't it?"
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