Interesting article about Levon's Barn and his "Midnight Rambles"Keep It Goin’ The Legacy of Levon's Barn
Rambling at midnight goes back many centuries and encompasses, to put it mildly, a variety of entertainments. The figure of a musician is often involved: the traveling troubadour, instrument slung over his back (almost always, the rambler was a man), rambling the dusty roads from gig to gig, town to town. By the late 17th century, you could ramble in cities as well as towns. To be a midnight rambler had a sexy, dirty connotation: one went out walking after midnight looking for love, or something like it.
John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, made crystal clear sometime after 1661 what a “ramble” was all about in his infamous nocturnal saga, “A Ramble in St. James Park,” which begins:"Much wine had passed, with grave discourse Of who @#$%& who, and who does worse"
The Rolling Stones, co-opting the name for their violence-laced 1969 hit “Midnight Rambler,” insisted that “it’s no rock and roll show.” However, this is just what a midnight ramble is and has always been — and the Stones’ own hard-riding rock song bears it out, despite the denial: A midnight ramble is the post-show show, the gig that happens after midnight, when the children have gone to bed and things spice up and get loose.
Just before the First World War, a carnival operator named Fred Swift Wolcott bought a touring variety and music show called, alternately, the Rabbit’s Foot Company and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, from the widow of its founder. Wolcott was a white man, but the company had nearly 70 African-American performers. He added his initials and name to the show, and sent his revue through the South. As it passed through Arkansas, a boy named Levon Helm caught the show, which gave him many fond memories. Years later, Helm transmuted those memories into his song, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”
The cast of characters in The Band’s 1970 song includes saints, sinners, losers, and winners — “all kinds of people you might want to know” (note, please, that qualifying might). “There’s a young faith healer / he’s a woman stealer.” There’s Miss Brer Foxhole, with “bright diamonds in her teeth,” who is “pure gold down underneath.” And there’s the all-American mashup musicians masquerading under the name of “the Klondike Klu Klux Steamboat Band.” A late night out at the show is just the thing for you if “your arms are empty” and you’ve “got nowhere to go.”
But the most important words in the song were “medicine show.” This is, after all, music with more than a message. It’s double-edged, curing what ails you while slipping something into your entertainment, like the miracle-cure medicine shows of the Wild West in the hands of dubious “snake-oil” salesmen touting magical cure-alls. No matter what you thought you bought, you always felt better in the end."
‘You Really Should Get Up Here’
At a benefit for guitarist Hubert Sumlin at BB King’s in New York in 2003, it was a delightful surprise to see Levon Helm settle in behind the drums. Sumlin had recently undergone surgery for lung cancer, and Helm had been contending with the throat cancer he wound up battling for more than a decade. Helm would spend many of those days sitting on stage at his drums or his mandolin, singing when he could; smiling that smile when he could not. During this “Howlin’ for Hubert” benefit performance, Helm did not sing, but his drumbeat was as unmistakable and unique as his voice was. He laid down the perfect heartbeat for every song, from the slow, yowling, stripteasy blues to the rockers.
At the end, he stood and cupped his hands. He mouthed, “Yeah, Hubert,” at his friend, who turned his back to the cheering crowd and, holding event organizer David Johansen’s arm, beamed at Helm. I went home full of love for Hubert and for Howlin’ Wolf, but what I put on the record player was “Stage Fright.” I wanted to hear Levon sing.
In the summer of 2004, I looked forward to that chance again. Helm had begun to invite friends to make music with him at his house in the woods in Woodstock, New York, on a pond folks now refer to as Lake Levon.
Erik Lawrence played countless Rambles, as the gatherings came to be called, from their ragged beginnings to the very last. “I knew Levon had cancer, and he was doing some pickup blues gigs. I was living in Vermont, and up until then I’d said yes to what paid, and no to things I wanted to do. Finally I had a little money in the bank, and I called Butch [Dener, longtime road manager for The Band] and said to him, ‘Just know anytime Levon’s doing a gig, I’ll show up and play for free.” And I did.
“Then, one day, Butch called and said, ‘You really should get up here!’ That was my first Ramble. The band was mostly members of Ollabelle, and Jimmy Vivino. Later on, Levon asked me to ‘bring a horn’ and I invited Steven Bernstein on trumpet because we played well together off the cuff. When Steven couldn’t do it, I’d hire Clark Gayton on trombone because he was such a good musician.”
Ollabelle’s principal singer was Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm. As time went on, she and bassist/composer Byron Isaacs became integral members of the Ramble band. Drummer Tony Leone sat in on drums, as would Amy, occasionally, whenever Levon slid onto the stool at center stage to pick his mandolin.
My first attempt at a Ramble failed. Late on a Saturday afternoon, quite literally as I was leaving my driveway, an older lady in a very large Buick drove into the passenger door of my car, leaving it undrivable. Frantic calls to friends with extra cars got me nothing. I phoned the number given in the confirmation email. A pleasant voice answered — Geanine Kane, who was in charge of merchandise. “Oh, I’ll take your name off the list,” she said. “Thanks for calling. When would you like to come?” I didn’t know what she meant, and had figured I was out close to a hundred bucks (the Ramble price used to be around $90). But she said, “Choose another Ramble. Levon doesn’t make people pay for music they don’t hear.” I picked the following Saturday.
Magic in the Catskills
Woodstock is one of the loveliest little towns — a setting toward which plants, animals, and humans have gravitated since long before time was recorded. It sits at a little hillcrest on the banks of fast-running creeks Millstream and Tannery Brook, both named for activities that used to take place in the area in the early days of settlement.
Richard Manuel and Rick Danko came to Woodstock in February 1967, as Danko tells it in Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (1993). “Richard and I had never been to the Catskills before, and we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” he recounts, “but we were frozen. We went over to Albert Grossman’s house and sat in front of a roaring fireplace with his wife, Sally. That was my introduction to Woodstock. As things happened, Sally Grossman would play a key role in our career, and Woodstock would become our home.”
After a hiatus from The Band that he spent mostly back home in Arkansas, Helm moved to Woodstock, too. The group started writing songs and singing, sometimes with Bob Dylan and sometimes without, in the basement of a nondescript house in Saugerties that was the color of diluted Pepto-Bismol. They concentrated on vocal harmonies, inspired, Helm recalled, by the Staple Singers and the Impressions, and the way they “would stack those individual voices on top of one another, each voice coming in at a different time until you got this blend that was just magic.”
That magic vocal blend — with Helm most often singing a discernible lead — became The Band’s trademark from 1967 until the original members ceased playing together after their “Last Waltz” in November 1976. Helm kept that magical blend going during the 1980s with Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, who remained Woodstock neighbors for much of the year. They got together at the Joyous Lake, a venue on Tinker Street, and embarked on a world tour in 1983.
All the while, Helm lived in Woodstock with his wife, Sandra. At first, the big barn space was just for him and his friends, a place to make music and record. The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, recorded there in 1975, won a Grammy. After “The Barn” burned to the ground, local craftsmen remade it better, with a high-beamed ceiling and an acoustic cupola at the roof’s apex. But Helm did not open the space to regular public concerts until he needed help paying the mortgage on his property. His medical bills for cancer treatment had taken priority.
As Helm told Karen Schoemer of New York Magazine in 2007, “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hang onto the place, but I thought, well, I’m going to go out with a bang. I’m going to have as many Rambles as I can, and have as many people as I can get come here and enjoy the music and see the place. And then when they see that I’ve sold it, they’ll know what it was."