Pride of Turkey Scratch

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

It was May 1940, and cot­ton was king in the Arkansas Delta. Thou­sands of share­crop­pers and ten­ant farm­ers still chopped cot­ton by hand in the sum­mer and picked the white bolls by hand in the fall. Just out­side Elaine in Phillips County, Nell and Di­a­mond Helm wel­comed a new son that month. They named him Mark Lavon Helm. He later would be­come known around the world sim­ply as Levon.

Levon Helm grew up in the Turkey Scratch com­mu­nity near Marvell, help­ing his fam­ily grow cot­ton. Mu­sic was a ma­jor part of his life from the start, both at home and in the church.

“Helm knew that he wanted to be­come a mu­si­cian at age 6 af­ter see­ing blue­grass mu­si­cian Bill Mon­roe per­form,” Bryan Rogers writes for the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Arkansas His­tory & Cul­ture. “He be­gan play­ing gui­tar at age 8 but was in­spired shortly af­ter­ward to be­come a drum­mer af­ter see­ing a per­for­mance by F.S. Wal­cott Rab­bit’s Foot Min­strels, who had a left-handed drum­mer. He also was in­spired by James ‘Peck’ Cur­tis, the drum­mer for blues leg­end Sonny Boy Wil­liamson, who fre­quently played in the area. Helm be­gan spend­ing time at the KFFA ra­dio stu­dio in He­lena, lis­ten­ing to blues per­form­ers. He watched live mu­si­cal per­for­mances in Marvell. When he was 12, he played gui­tar on the lo­cal mu­sic cir­cuit, ac­com­pa­nied by his sis­ter Linda on wash­tub bass, per­form­ing at 4-H clubs and other civic club gath­er­ings. While in high school, he formed his first band, the Jun­gle Bush Beat­ers.

“When he was 17, Helm got his first big break when he met Ron­nie Hawkins, the rock­a­billy star born in Huntsville, at the West He­lena Delta Sup­per Club, where Hawkins was work­ing sans drum­mer. The pi­ano player knew Helm and sug­gested to Hawkins that the young drum­mer sit in with the band. Helm was asked to join the band, and once he grad­u­ated from high school in Marvell, he joined Hawkins’ band, the Hawks, on the road.”

Helm’s many fans know the rest of the story. The Hawks be­came a sen­sa­tion in Canada. Band mem­bers later broke away from Hawkins. They were asked to ac­com­pany Bob Dy­lan on his 1966 tour of the United King­dom. Later known sim­ply as The Band, the group toured un­til 1976 when gui­tarist Rob­bie Robert­son an­nounced that he was tired of the road. Martin Scors­ese made a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled The Last

Waltz about The Band’s farewell con­cert on Thanks­giv­ing Day 1976. Helm con­tin­ued to sign record con­tracts and also be­gan an act­ing ca­reer, even play­ing Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 movie Coal Miner’s Daugh­ter.

Helm died from throat cancer in April 2012. For sev­eral years, Phillips County landowner Joe Grif­fith has been lin­ing up peo­ple to help him re­store the Helm fam­ily home from Turkey Scratch and dis­play a bronze statue of Helm. What’s now known as the Levon Helm Legacy Project has launched a Go­FundMe page (www.go­­on­helm­memo­rial) to raise funds for the project, which will be in down­town Marvell. Lit­tle Rock-based painter and sculp­tor Kevin Kresse has been com­mis­sioned to cre­ate the statue.

The tiny Helm home first was moved ad­ja­cent to the mas­sive Palmer House on U.S. 49 north­west of Marvell. The Palmer House, built be­tween 1870 and 1873 for lawyer John C. Palmer, was un­der­go­ing an ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tion when it burned in May 2013. The Helm home was then moved to Marvell, where it will stand on Car­ruth Av­enue next to the bronze me­mo­rial.

One of the peo­ple who has worked closely with Grif­fith has been Anna Lee Ams­den, the long­time Helm friend im­mor­tal­ized in the song “The Weight.”

“It was Levon’s wish to keep the mu­sic play­ing on,” Ams­den says. “We want to cre­ate this me­mo­rial in Marvell to pre­serve his legacy and honor the last­ing con­tri­bu­tions that he made to both mu­sic and film.”

The Levon Helm Legacy Project lists its goals as “not only to memo­ri­al­ize Levon in the place that cre­ated and nur­tured his gifts but to let the mu­sic of the Delta con­tinue to play on and in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of artists who may spring from the uniquely rich and fer­tile artis­tic land­scape.” In June, the stretch of U.S. 49 from Marvell to He­lena was ded­i­cated as the Levon Helm Me­mo­rial High­way.

The Delta. The soil. The mu­sic. They’re in­ter­twined for those of us who travel there on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. It was as if mu­sic sprang from that Delta soil, and no one more per­son­i­fied that sound and that place than Helm. If you lived in Turkey Scratch, you con­sid­ered He­lena to be the big city. Af­ter all, He­lena was home of the King Bis­cuit Time ra­dio show and seem­ingly had blues mu­si­cians play­ing on ev­ery cor­ner when Helm was a boy. That’s where Helm went to hang out and where he de­cided that “Peck” Cur­tis was hav­ing the most fun. Helm thus set out on the path that would make him one of the most fa­mous drum­mers in his­tory.

He­lena al­ready has the Delta Cul­tural Cen­ter and week­day live broad­casts of King Bis­cuit Time. So Marvell, which strug­gles like so many Delta towns (its pop­u­la­tion fell from 1,980 in the 1970 cen­sus to 1,186 in the 2010 cen­sus), seems a fit­ting place to honor Helm. It means there will be mu­sic-re­lated at­trac­tions at both ends of the Levon Helm Me­mo­rial High­way.

Helm came back to Marvell of­ten, in­clud­ing the time it was de­clared Levon Helm Day. The restora­tion of the shot­gun house and the ad­di­tion of the statue will give trav­el­ers on U.S. 49 a rea­son to stop there. Of course, they al­ready slow down since the city long has had a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing among the state’s top speed traps.

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