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Elmore’s Kay Cordtz Remembers Levon Helm

Levon Helm at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2011. Photo by Steven Sandick

The day I first met Levon Helm backstage at Mount Holyoke College’s Chapin Hall, he gave me and my girlfriends a detailed talk on the new boots he was wearing—from how the Nocona company was founded in West Texas by Daddy Joe Justin’s daughter to how you walk in them, sort of pigeon-toed and bowlegged, to find the exact right fit. Not only did I not own a pair of cowboy boots at that time, I didn’t know anyone else who did either. But decades later in Santa Fe, I found myself repeating this information word-for-word to friends who wore nothing else and watched them listen attentively, like I was imparting hard-won wisdom rather than all the information I had on the subject.

In interviews with Levon, great quotes were a sure thing. He described singing as “a joyful thing,” and said that music “goes to that softest and hardest place in the human heart.” Nobody could say it better. Every musician I know who has spent time with him has vivid stories of conversations about songs or arrangements or fellow musicians—usually told in their best approximation of his Arkansas twang. This total recall might be due to the hypnotic quality of his speaking voice and his exquisite timing, as evident in his storytelling as in his music. But more than that, I think it was his gift for rich language that caused us to hang on every word and, in the retelling, want to quote rather than paraphrase to not lose the truth in his words.

The songs that were the Band’s body of work grew from such conversations as surely as my second-hand seminar on cowboy boots. In the continuing discussion of song authorship, it seems fitting to note that memorable lyrics preserve evocative spoken words by moving them to paper where they will live as long as human beings can listen and see. Anyone who had the good fortune to have those conversations with Levon will miss them as dearly as his musical magic, his mighty heart and his incandescent soul.

– Kay Cordtz

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