Pride of Turkey Scratch
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. gofundme.com/ levonhelmmemorial) 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.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.