With songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek," The Band fused rock, blues, folk, and gospel to create a sound that seemed as authentically American as a Mathew Brady photograph or a Mark Twain short story. In truth, the group had only one American—Levon Helm. Helm, the drummer and singer who brought an urgent beat and a genuine Arkansas twang to some of The Band's best-known songs and helped turn a bunch of musicians known mostly as Bob Dylan's backup group into one of rock's legendary acts, has died at 71.
Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died this afternoon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. On Tuesday, a message on his website said he was in the final stages of cancer. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins for a tour of Canada in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, spent grueling years touring rough bars in Canada and the South. They would split from Hawkins, hook up with Dylan, and eventually call themselves The Band—because, as they explained many times, that's what everyone called them anyway. (Read more Levon Helm stories.)