Biographical information by Sandra Cox
Fayetteville’s core curriculum includes the legacy of Levon Helm, and to this end, the library is proud to present the NWA premiere of Ain’t In It for My Health, a documentary about musician and Arkansas native Levon Helm, at 6:45 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, followed by a panel discussion featuring those who knew him.
Director Jacob Hatley filmed this documentary for two-and-a-half years during the creation of Levon’s Grammy award-winning Dirt Farmer album, his first studio album in 25 years. The film spans a wide scope of Helm’s life, including kitchen table conversations, Midnight Ramble concerts and his throat cancer treatments.
Following the premier screening Kyle Kellam, KUAF news director and “Ozarks at Large” host, will facilitate a panel including: Anna Lee Amsden, Helm’s lifelong friend and ‘Anna Lee’ mentioned in The Band song “The Weight”; Earl Cate of The Cate Brother Band, Terry Cagle, Helm’s nephew and drummer for The Cate Brothers; and Junior Markham, a friend of Helm’s who performed with him in the 1960s. If you are still unsure to take a load off Annie or Fanny, this event could clear things up.
Helm was born in Phillips County, Ark., and as a young adult he became the drummer for Fayetteville rock ‘n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks. The Hawks featured a rotating set of musicians before settling with Hawkins, Helm and four Canadians: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel. The group eventually broke away from Hawkins and backed folk-rock musician Bob Dylan before setting out on their own as The Band. Songs like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” all of which featured Helm on vocals, are considered rock classics. The Band’s final performance in its original lineup was documented in the 1978 film, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Helm had strong ties to Northwest Arkansas. The Hawks routinely made Fayetteville their home base when touring the mid-South, often staying at the Iris Motel, located on North College Avenue approximately where Kosmos Greekafe and Slim Chickens now stand. While in Fayetteville, they performed at the legendary Rockwood Club and even dances at Fayetteville High School. In the 1960s, Helm’s family relocated from Phillips County to Springdale, with Helm often visiting for extended stays.
In the 1980s, Northwest Arkansas’ own Cate Brothers, featuring twins Earl and Ernie Cate along with Ron Eoff and Helm’s nephew Terry Cagle, joined Helm and The Band (minus Robertson) for a series of concerts in both the United States and Canada.
Helm also had much success as both an actor and a solo artist. He was featured in several films, including Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff and made his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he held monthly Midnight Ramble shows that featured guest musicians. He toured, even while battling throat cancer, sometimes stopping for a Fayetteville performance.
Though his vocals were altered from cancer, Helm continued to record. His album Dirt Farmer earned him a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Traditional Folk Album followed by another Grammy for Electric Dirt for Best Americana Album in 2009. Ramble at the Ryman, which featured Helm and several others, also earned a Best Americana Album Grammy in 2011.
On April 19, 2012, Helm died following his long, courageous battle with cancer. He was 71. Gov. Mike Beebe ordered that Arkansas flags be flown at half-staff in Helm’s memory on April 27, 2012, as “an expression of public sorrow.”
If you’re anything like me, you set this article down after the first paragraph and started digging out your Helm records/CDs/Mp3s. And if you are really like me, you found about half of what you remembered owning. Fortunately, if you want to discover more about Helm, you’ve got the Fayetteville Public Library. In addition to attending the film, you can download and sample some of Dylan and the Band’s albums’ Basement Tapes and Before the Flood through Freegal, a free digital download music service available from FPL. You may also want to read Levon’s book This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band or check out his albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt. For the truly curious, you can also check out the space drama film he narrated The Right Stuff. All available for checkout at FPL.
If you can’t make it Aug. 9, the library is presenting additional screenings of Ain’t In It for My Health at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, as part of the Fayetteville Roots Festival; 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29; and 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, during Bikes, Blues and BBQ.
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