This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Bandby Levon Helm, Stephen Davis
The Band, with drummer Levon Helm, is now regarded as perhaps the most important rock group of the 60s generation. From the cotton fields of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where Helm was raised, to Greenwich Village to Woodstock, this book bares his soul & memory, replaying the tumultuous history of the times & the Band that epitomized those times. From first… See more details below
The Band, with drummer Levon Helm, is now regarded as perhaps the most important rock group of the 60s generation. From the cotton fields of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where Helm was raised, to Greenwich Village to Woodstock, this book bares his soul & memory, replaying the tumultuous history of the times & the Band that epitomized those times. From first hearing Sonny Boy Williamson & seeing Elvis perform, through a torrid life on the road, Helm has lived the American rock & roll story. But The Band became deadlocked in personality clashes, ultimately going out like a lion with its final 1975 concert. Photos.
"A must-read for anyone interested in Rock and Roll’s golden age.” —Williamsport Sun-Gazette
“This Wheel’s On Fire delivers Levon Helm unfiltered, at once feisty and welcoming to anyone who comes across his story … It’s one hell of a story.” —PasteMagazine.com
- HarperCollins Publishers
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This Wheel's on Fire
Levon Helm and the Story of the Band
By Levon Helm, Stephen Davis
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1993 Levon Helm and Stephen Davis
All rights reserved.
THE ROAD FROM TURKEY SCRATCH
Waterboy! Hey, waterboy!
That's my cue. It's harvesttime, 1947, and I'm the seven-year -old waterboy on my daddy Diamond Helm's cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. My dad and mom are working in the fields along with neighbors and black sharecropping families like the Tillmans and some migrant laborers we'd hired, seasonals up from Mexico. My older sister, Modena, is back at the house watching my younger sister, Linda, and my baby brother, Wheeler. Since I'm still too young for Diamond to sit me on the tractor, my job is to keep everyone hydrated. I got a couple of good metal pails, and I work that hand pump until the water runs clear and cold. I run back and forth between the pump house and the turn row, where the people drink their fill under a shady tree limb. I learned early on that the human body is a water-cooled engine.
It was hard work. The temperature was usually around a hundred degrees that time of year. But that's how I started out, carrying water to relieve the scorching thirst that comes from picking cotton in the heat and rich delta dust.
I was born in the house my father rented on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, near Elaine, Arkansas. The delta is a different landscape from the one you might be used to, so I want to draw you some sketches of the old-time southern farm communities I grew up in, when cotton was king and rock and roll wasn't even born yet.
I'm talking about a low, flat water world of bayous, creeks, levees, and dikes, and some of the best agricultural land in the world for growing cotton, rice, and soybeans. When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the sixteenth century, the delta's cypress forests sheltered Mississippian Indian tribes — Choctaw, Chickasaw, Natchez — who constructed giant burial mounds related to astronomy and magic. I'm descended from them through my grandmother Dolly Webb, whose own grandmother had Chickasaw blood, like many of us in Phillips County.
In the 1790s Sylvanus Phillips led the first English settlers across the Mississippi River into eastern Arkansas. They were mostly immigrants from North Carolina, the Helms probably among them. They laid out the town of Helena, seventy miles downriver from Memphis, in 1820. It grew overnight into a pioneer river port full of keelboats, flatboats, stockboats, and ferries. The river was a mixed blessing, rising and falling annually so that levees had to be built and maintained.
Helena rose in the steamboat age, along with Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and Memphis. The town earned a brawling reputation early on. In the 1840s Helena was described in the New York press as a notorious den "where all sorts of nigger runners, counterfeiters, horse stealers, murderers and sich like took shelter again the law." An apprentice steamboat pilot named Sam Clemens, later better known as Mark Twain, saw Helena's riverside slums and dark saloons filled with gamblers, idlers, and thugs. Tied to the landings were the boats of slavers, minstrel shows, itinerant doctors, whiskey dealers, brothel keepers, and other businessmen of the American frontier.
During the Civil War, Phillips County was ardent rebel country, producing seven Confederate generals, more than any other county in the South. To me that says a lot about the place. There's a Confederate cemetery atop Crowley's Ridge, overlooking Helena and the river. Union artillery controlled river traffic with four batteries of cannon on top of the ridge there. A few thousand poorly armed rebel farmboys tried to dislodge those Yankee guns during the Battle of Helena in 1863. Charging up the naked hill under withering fire, most of them died trying. I used to visit the quiet, leafy graveyard when I was a boy.
Think of endless cotton fields, gravel roads, groves of pecan trees, canebrakes, bayous, pump houses, kudzu vines, sharecroppers' cabins, tenant farmhouses, flooded rice fields, the biggest sky in the world, and the nearby Mississippi, like an inland sea with its own weather system. Think 110 degrees in the shade in the summertime. Cotton country. We were cotton farmers.
Cotton was labor-intensive even after the Civil War, with the result that Phillips County lies in what used to be called the Black Belt, meaning the population is maybe 80 percent African -American. That's why the delta is known for its music. The sound of the blues, rhythm and blues, country music, is what we lived for, black and white alike. It gave you strength to sit on one of those throbbing Allis-Chalmers tractors all day if you knew you were gonna hear something on the radio or maybe see a show that evening.
My father, Jasper Diamond "J.D." Helm, was born in Monroe County, Arkansas, in 1910. The Helms were farming near Elaine in 1919 when the famous Elaine race riots broke out. Some black tenant sharecroppers around Elaine couldn't live on low crop prices that amounted to peonage, so they started a union and withheld their cotton from the market. A bunch of Ku Kluxers from around Helena drove over and shot up one of their meetings. Things took off from there, and quite a few people from both races were killed before federal troops from Little Rock, Arkansas, put a stop to it. Someone put out a rumor that all the white farmers and their families were going to be murdered by the rioters. My daddy remembered waiting with his father and brother on the front porch of their farm, pistols and shotguns at the ready. "If they show up here," my grandfather told his sons, "don't shoot till I say so, and we'll fight 'em as long as we live." But the riot never did come down the road that day.
My grandfather Helm died when my father was just a boy, so I never knew him. But I was close to my mother's father, Wheeler Wilson. He was a logger as a younger man, working for the Howe Lumber Company and Plantation. After they cut down that first -stand cypress forest after the turn of the century, there was nothing left except that rich delta soil, so many of the loggers became farmers. Wheeler kind of went back and forth between logging and farming for many years. He liked dirt farming, but he didn't have any education except the kind you get from being pencil-whipped by the mortgage bank. Sometimes he'd prefer to stay in one of the lumber camps and work. There'd be a big corral of mules back in there, some tents, maybe a few small buildings. I'm talking about the country now, south of Elaine. The road finally stopped at a little place called Ferguson, where you had to turn around. It was the end of the line, Bubba! But Wheeler liked it in that timber camp. He'd trap and hunt on the side, file saws, make a pretty good living. Then in the spring, when they started turning that dirt over and the air was filled with it, he'd go back to farming.
Wheeler wasn't afraid of anything and took nothing from nobody. One year when he was farming he got in a fight with a local man named Levy Doolittle over a crop. Mr. Doolittle had come to the farm to argue over a field of corn, and Wheeler told him, "There's the damn crop. Go ahead and take it, or d'ye want me to cut 'n' shuck it for ya too, ya damn fool!" Well, they took it a little farther than a cussfight. They done broke it down and started firing at each other. Luckily, no one got seriously hurt. Mr. Doolittle might have been grazed slightly; just a little birdshot from a distance, nothing meant to kill. Meanwhile, Mr. Doolittle was firing back at Grandpaw Wilson, who was standing in his doorway, and splinters and wood chips were flying. I guess it was something of a standoff, at least until Mr. Doolittle saw Grandmaw Agnes hand Wheeler a couple of double-ought buckshot cartridges, at which point Mr. Doolittle ran backward over the levee. They didn't see him again until it was time to go to court, where they all ended up. The lawyers kept it up almost that whole winter. "Well, Mr. Wilson, you say you don't recollect firing at Mr. Doolittle when he had his back toward you; just how do you explain this?" They held up some kind of jacket with the back shredded to ribbons by shotgun pellets. And Wheeler said, "Well, the only thing I can think of is, somebody hung it over a bush and shot the hell out of it." Of course everyone hee-hawed, and the judge gaveled 'em all out of there. They'd wasted enough time with that bullshit anyway. So Wheeler told me to never get involved with a lawsuit. Even when you win, you lose.
He hated the Ku Klux Klan. I'm real proud of that. One day when he was farming he heard that some of them were trying to organize in the area. He put his shotgun in the back of his wagon and found a bunch of 'em on the porch of the general store. He went right up and said, "Excuse me, sirs, but have any of you all seen any of them goddamn Ku Kluxers?" No one said anything, so Grandpaw prompted 'em a little. "Those sorry sheet -wearin' sons of bitches." They still didn't say a word. "Well, if you see any of them Ku Kluxers, you tell 'em Wheeler Wilson's looking for 'em, and you can tell 'em where I live."
Wheeler was a scrapper, damn sure was, and I like to think I might take after him a little. He came up just as pure as anyone came up in those parts and always noticed that when he wanted to get a loan for farming, he went through the same door as any black man, any yellow man, any kind of man. And he also noticed the banks would outpencil him every time, and he didn't like it. Because he was white, he stood up to 'em more than once and ended up in court over it.
His attitude, and my mother's, toward people is what gave me a big advantage in life. It saved me from having to wear that whole damn load of racism that a lot of people had to carry. My mom, God love her, she was one of those Bible people. She thought it was wrong to bother anybody, regardless of race, color, or religion. It just wasn't a Christian thing to look down on anybody, and that's what she taught us.
People called my daddy by his middle name, Diamond Helm. In 1932 he was a twenty-two year-old cotton farmer during the week and a musician and entertainer on the weekend. Diamond played guitar in a little band with some friends at house parties that charged two bits a head for dancing. They had white lightning in quart fruit jars — you only needed to inhale the vapors, and it'd make your hair hang down.
Diamond met Wheeler Wilson's beautiful blond daughter Nell at one of these parties. They were married on June 9, 1933, at the Baptist church in Elaine. My sister Modena was born a year or so after that, and I came along in the spring of 1940. I was baptized Mark Lavon Helm.
Not long after that, Nell and Diamond moved to a tiny rural farming community called Midway, because our long dirt road intersected with the hard gravel road about midway between the village of Turkey Scratch and the town of Marvell, all about twenty miles west of Helena. My younger sister, Linda, was born two years after me, with my baby brother, Wheeler, waiting several years after that to make his appearance.
So that's where we grew up, way back off the hard road, miles through the cotton fields, almost all the way to Big Creek. Don't even think about electricity. We might have used a battery-powered radio until I was ten years old. Our nearest neighbors were Clyde and Arlena Cavette and their three girls, Mary, Tiny, and Jessie Mae. Their farm was just a couple of miles away, and our families shared two sets of intermarried relatives, so we were all raised together as closely as possible, and Mary is still my closest friend.
My earliest memories are of my mom. She was pretty, with blond, curly hair and piercing blue eyes. She was fun to be around, always joking and laughing. She was the disciplinarian of the family and kept an immaculate house. "Get out of my kitchen!" she'd yell, usually because she was working in there. She was a great cook, and that's the way she raised us up. She felt the best you can really do for anybody is to set 'em down and feed 'em good. You may not be able to do anything else, but you'll at least have 'em in a good holding pattern so life can go on. Nell (her real name was Emma) was basically a traditional farm housewife. She worked in the fields in spring and fall just like we all did. "Lavon, go bring me some stovewood and a bucket of water." Mom didn't believe in slapping me when I got into trouble, but she did have long fingernails, and if I really acted up, she'd drop her hand, fingers pointed down, onto the top of my head. "Don't do that." So I learned to cover my head when punishment was imminent, whereas other kids learned to cover their rears.
Her brother Herbert Wilson was a tractor mechanic who lived with his kids — my cousins — down in Crumrod, Arkansas, below Elaine. When I was a toddler we'd stay with them, and Uncle Herbert would clean out a tractor barn on Saturday nights and show movies. I remember those flickering images like it was yesterday: a little fat guy in a hat yelling at a skinnier guy in a suit and mustache. It must have been 1943. Years later I realized that's where I first saw the comedy team of Abbott and Costello.
This was during the war, and cotton production was at its height. All day and night the freight trains carrying bales and cottonseed oil came rolling down the Cotton Belt, and I ran to see every freight that went by. My cousins would hold me down to te[??]se me, and I'd fight 'em off just so I wouldn't miss seeing that freight.
Back at home, we were a musical family. Mama sang in a clear alto voice, and Dad and I sang together as far back as I can remember. He liked all kinds of music and taught me "Sitting on Top of the World" when I was four years old. All us kids remember sitting on his lap in the evenings while he relaxed in his chair. He'd sing to us and affectionately rub our hands with his rough farmer's fingers until we'd get calluses on our knuckles. My father knew so many songs, he was like a fountain of music. He was still teaching me songs when he passed away at age eighty-two in 1992. His mother, Grandmaw Dolly, was the bell cow of our family for a whole lot of years. She had remarried a gentleman named Luther Crawford and would organize family get-togethers at her house in West Helena or at Old Town Lake in Elaine. A beautiful old lady.
If I think back, I can still hear faint echoes of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on our family radio. We'd have to buy a battery two and a half feet long and maybe eight inches thick; a big, heavy damn thing! I remember my dad pulling our tractor right up to the window of the house one night when the battery was down, and he plugged the radio into the tractor battery so we wouldn't lose the Grand Ole Opry, The Shadow, The Creaking Door, Amos 'n' Andy — those were the shows you couldn't miss. Sky King. From about four-thirty in the afternoon on, I was so close to that radio that my memories are of the rest of the family behind me. That was our entertainment. My dad and Clyde Cavette would go into town and get two fifty-pound ice blocks that would fit in our iceboxes. You could chip off them for a week. They'd buy an extra fifty pounds of ice, and we'd get together that night and make freezers of ice cream. Mom and Arlena would bake up a couple of big cakes: one coconut, one pecan. On special occasions the two moms would collaborate on lemon icebox pies, their own invention. They'd beat two cans of Pet milk until it was whipped to foam, adding sugar and lemon juice until it congealed. Then they'd freeze it in the icebox. I loved this beyond belief. It was so sweet your mouth would pucker. After I was old enough to work, they'd have to make three pies: one for each family and one for Lavon. And I'd guard mine. Then we'd make the radio the main feature, maybe play cards, visit.
Going to music shows was high-level entertainment for our family. They'd set up tents at the edge of Marvell and have a stage, folding chairs, and refreshments. The first show I remember was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on a summer evening in 1946, when I was six years old. Boy, this really tattooed my brain. I've never forgotten it: Bill had a real good five-piece band. They took that old hillbilly music, sped it up, and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody. We heard Bill Monroe regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, but here he was in the flesh. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in the band when I saw them.
That was the end of cowboys and Indians for me. When I got home I held the broom sideward and strutted past the barn, around the pump, and out to the watermelon patch, pretending to play the guitar. I was hooked.
Excerpted from This Wheel's on Fire by Levon Helm, Stephen Davis. Copyright © 1993 Levon Helm and Stephen Davis. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Levon Helm met Ronnie Hawkins at the age of 17 and formed what would soon become The Band. He lives in Woodstock, New York. Stephen Davis is the author of the best-selling rock book of all time, Hammer of the Gods.
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