Born into American Musical Royalty
In a recent interview with Woodstock Magazine, Amy Helm shed light on her new upcoming solo album. Slated for a June debut release, Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers will perform at Mountain Jam and will continue to perform on stages and festivals throughout the year.
This body of work is her first endeavor to front a band, featuring her strong angelic voice as well as her talents on multiple instruments, including mandolin and guitar.
Helm says, “It has taken me some work to meet the physical challenge of singing and playing up front for an entire show.”
Having enjoyed her work with Ollabelle, the band she anchored along with Byron Isaacs, her life’s work has prepared her for a solo album. The Handsome Strangers consists of Byron Isaacs (bass & vocals), Don Littleton (guitar & vocals) and David Berger (drums/percussion).
Amy states that many of the talented musicians that have performed with The Handsome Strangers (or those who frequented The Barn, home of The Midnight Rambles) also appear on or influenced her album, such as Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Liz Mitchell, Catherine Russell, Jim Weider and many more.
Born into American musical royalty as the daughter of Levon Helm (songsmith, drummer, mandolin, and vocalist for The Band) and vocalist Libby Titus, Amy Helm is no stranger to public and recorded performances. Not too many entities can call on such a musical pedigree, gracing the roster of The Midnight Rambles (Levon’s realized dream of both a performance stage and recording studio). The Ramble Band, Ollabelle, and Dirt Farmer Band, all working projects of Levon’s that feature performances with Amy Helm.
Originals and a few covers make up this album with a sound, like a fine gumbo, that includes one part blues, a dash of Cajun spice, a touch of classic rock and a bit o’ soulful gospel for good measure. An early copy of the debut album can be shipped directly to you with three sneak peek mp3s: visit www.amyhelm.com and click on the “Pledge” icon.
When the daughter of Woodstock’s favorite son produces an album with liner notes that read like an entertainment Who’s Who, then our future as the audience is so bright, we gotta wear shades. We, collectively as a community, wish to thank Amy Helm, as well as the crews and supporting staff that work behind the scenes to maintain what appears so effortless. “The Woodstock community has constantly been supportive of Levon and the endeavors of Levon Helm Studios,” says Amy.
As important as her music career is, Helm’s family values are best demonstrated in her daily life and role as a mom. Her nurturing abilities are not diluted by busy scheduling. As we chatted, she created a calming environment while her son enjoyed a mid-week school sick-day and mom’s company.
The Band and Bob Dylan honed an Americana folk sound, which eventually led to Levon Helm’s album “Dirt Farmer” achieving a Best Folk Album Grammy Award in ’08. Amy Helm shared production credits and provided vocals and instrumentation. Worthy of note, former Dylan guitarist/sideman Larry Campbell co-produced “Dirt Farmer,” and provided direction and instrumentation. The world was hungry for this musical meld and lightning struck twice as “Electric Dirt,” Levon’s final album, won yet another Grammy in a newly created category, “Best Americana Album.”
This is a sound and style not learned or simply produced, but seeped and distilled like moonshine. Levon Helm has inspired musicianship as well as agricultural education to young people through Onteora School benefits and The Rambles, and Amy Helm carries on that legacy. It is not uncommon for The Barn to bring students from the local Paul Green Rock Academy and introduce them to live stage performances.
Far from Nashville, nestled in the Catskills, Levon Helm’s dream remains fulfilled, with a cozy performance venue at The Barn, served up homestyle like the Grand Ole Opry. The Midnight Rambles will continue to present eclectic performances with iconic musicians.
Woodstock has a long history as a cultural destination for artists and musicians. As the 50’s brought on the beatnik subculture and bohemian lifestyle, that subculture was adopted by musicians in many parts of America (though the West Coast and San Francisco may have been the cradle of the bohemian stylized culture). As the 60’s transpired, it was not adults with regular jobs and families who influenced the culture, but a restless movement by young people referred to as “hippies.” Free thinkers, radicals and communes filled TV news and periodicals of the time. Vietnam was an unpopular war in a land most Americans could not find on a globe. While a generation chanted for peace, it was peppered with dissent, and the music of the time reflected this.
By 1965, music was changing. Joni Mitchell, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and The Mamas and Papas maintained acoustical strumming as accompaniment. Bob Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan, brought timeless yet modern folk music to the masses. Steeped in poetry and simple chords, with only a guitar and harmonica for backing, his music grew immensely popular with a youthful audience hungry to call a style their own. Soon, even Bob Dylan morphed by using electric accompaniment. Perhaps it was under the advisement of then-manager Albert Grossman (a Woodstock producer to many rock acts) that Dylan should tour with this electrified version of a folk band, The Hawks. Levon Helm was on drums, and Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson rounded out this backup band, which toured with Ronnie Hawkins, a known rock & roller. This electrified accompaniment (soon to be known as “The Band”) did not sit well with some of Dylan’s audience.
After a European tour, Dylan, who at the time called Woodstock home, was convalescing for nearly a year from a rather serious motorcycle accident he suffered locally, on Striebel Road in Bearsville. Soon his band also settled into Woodstock. The Band assembled tracks at the house they rented called “Big Pink,” where they composed the album “Music from Big Pink.” This pink house in West Saugerties was also where Dylan created the sketch tracks that became known as “The Basement Tapes.” This very successful plethora of tunes honed by Dylan, along with individual members of The Band, was released first as bootlegs, and as a complete album in 2014.
The 1967 “Summer of Love” was rather like an incubation period for bigger things to come. In ’68, entrepreneur Michael Lang got his feet wet in business and concert promotion in Florida, but it was here in Woodstock in 1969 that the town’s namesake concert formed its roots. Township fathers became unsettled, fearing the size of such gatherings in the past, before Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel became the festival site. Michael Lang and partner Artie Kornfeld swam against the tide of public opinion to orchestrate the largest peaceful assembly of man and most successful music festival of its time.
While there were the hard rockers of the day appearing on the Woodstock festival stage, they were sometimes followed by easy folk and blends of both genres. Music became a melting pot as Jimi Hendrix’s stinging licks were appreciated by the same audience drinking in acoustical melodies. Together, musicians developed their craft and married sounds and styles from Chicken Scratch, Arkansas (Levon’s home), to San Francisco, to New York City.
Since the earliest days of colonization, historic events led to the shaping of Woodstock as a cultural destination sought by artisans, writers, musicians, agriculturists, craftspeople, industrialists, and of course, even you and me.
After English explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river now bearing his name, word of this lush and fertile area spread throughout Europe. Authors built reputations by writing prose and poetry such as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” a legend that has stood the test of time. In the story, a somewhat lazy ‘local’ downs a few pints with Hudson’s crew and naps for 20 years in the Catskill Mountains near Palenville. He awakens years later to realize time has passed him by, a somewhat mystical hypnotic effect visitors often still succumb to.
Story and legend were not the only forms of expression that flourished. An entire movement of landscape painting ensued as The Hudson River School was founded by Thomas Cole and brought students like Frederic Edwin Church, known for his huge oil landscape paintings. Not far from us here, across the river at his mansion (Olana), many of his massive works may be viewed. Certainly worth a visit.
While the Hudson River School attracted painters to this area, another venue was born under the direction of Jane Byrd McCall, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, Bolton Brown and Hervey White. The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was founded in 1902 and remains functional today. The center still provides performance stages, art exhibitions, workshops, and classes to foster an environment of artistic culture. It often provided lodging to aspiring artists and musicians– including, in the 60’s, Bob Dylan.
Yet another colony was constructed in 1916 by Hervey White, and Maverick Concerts formed. Still offering performances today and featuring chamber music as a mainstay, there is no limit to the genres they will nurture. It was in 1952 when musician/pianist David Tudor performed a piece created by experimental music composer John Cage. Soon to be referred to as “4’33,” it consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds with no written or recorded notes. Instead, the audience listened to ambient sounds of wind, birds, weather, and even the audience-generated noise. Perhaps too avant-garde for me, but exemplary of the freethinking Woodstock is known for. Maverick also created the Young Peoples Concerts and fostered educational programs.
Today Woodstock still stands as a community supporting art, music, and entertainment. This town has been home to many of the greats, and while we mourn the loss of our favorite son, Levon, the torch is carried by Amy Helm. And she carries it well.
Article by Craig McCornock
Feature photo by unknown
Photo of Levon and Amy Helm by Doug Potoksky
Photo of Amy Helm by Connie Ward
Photo of Levon and Amy Helm at the Colony Cafe by Doug Potoksky
Photo of Amy Helm performing at the Barn by Bob Minkin