By the busload, hundreds of friends and fans of Levon Helm traveled to his home today to say goodbye to the influential singer and drummer for The Band, who died of cancer last week.
The public memorial was held at the Woodstock barn where Helm held his Saturday night Midnight Ramble concerts in New York’s Hudson Valley. His closed casket was surrounded by flowers and flanked by his drum kit and a piano.
Friends, neighbors and fans filed silently past the coffin, which was on the second floor of the barn and set against a backdrop of a family photo slideshow. Nearby, family members greeted visitors.
Mourners — a crowd of mostly middle-aged people with a smattering of aging hippies and a few young people — were quietly encouraged to keep the line moving. Some carried flowers, and a few pressed handkerchiefs to their faces.
“He was an icon but also the guy next door,” said Al Caron of Woodstock as he waited outside the Woodstock Playhouse for one of the yellow school buses ferrying people to Helm’s nearby home-studio.
“He played music on the village green,” Caron said. “The Rambles were like a revival meeting. There was just a sense of euphoria from the minute you arrived at his home and he will be missed.”
After a private funeral Friday, Helm will be buried in Woodstock Cemetery next to Rick Danko, The Band’s singer and bassist who died in 1999.
Helm, Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel’s first album as The Band was 1968’s “Music From Big Pink.” That album and its follow-up, “The Band,” remain landmark albums of the era, and songs such as “The Weight,” “Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek” have become rock standards.
Helm was found to have throat cancer in 1998. He died April 19 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Early on, The Band backed Bob Dylan on his electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary “Basement Tapes.” On his website last week, Dylan called Helm “one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.”
The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, would split from Hawkins, join Dylan and ultimately become The Band.
The Band bid farewell to live shows with “The Last Waltz” concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played the show, filmed by Martin Scorsese. “The Last Waltz” is regarded by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, once the best of friends.
The Band reunited without Robertson in the 1980s but never approached its early success.
In 2004, Helm he began a series of free-wheeling Midnight Ramble shows in his barn. He recorded “Dirt Farmer” in 2007 and “Electric Dirt” in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for “Ramble at the Ryman.”