Mr. Helm received three Grammy Awards, including the 2012 Best Americana album for “Ramble at the Ryman,” the 2007 Best Traditional Folk Album for his album “Dirt Farmer,” and the 2009 Best Americana Album award for its follow-up, “Electric Dirt.” The recordings showed Mr. Helm in strong form despite his health — his voice weathered but still resonant.
During The Band’s heyday — from 1968 to 1976 — Mr. Helm sang many of its most enduring songs, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Director Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “The Last Waltz,” filmed in 1976 and released in 1978, chronicled the final concert appearance by The Band’s original members: guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel.
Many of their songs reflected a fascination with American history and culture, particularly the Deep South. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969), credited to Robertson, was from the perspective of a Confederate solider who recounts his losses during the Civil War. Mr. Helm, the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, was The Band’s only American. The other four members were Canadians.
“The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots,” noted the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. “With their ageless songs and solid grasp of musical idioms, The Band reached across the decades, making connections for a generation that was, as an era of violent cultural schisms wound down, in desperate search of them.”
Though its music was often called “country rock,” The Band was as much influenced by gospel, rhythm and blues, New Orleans jazz and hillbilly music as by the contemporary Nashville music scene. The band often used the mandolin, tuba or accordion in its arrangements. Mr. Helm said the dual keyboard sound — Manuel’s organ and Hudson’s piano — was inspired by Anglican church music.
After The Band split up in 1976, the handsome and lean-faced Mr. Helm launched a secondary career as an actor. In Time magazine, film critic Frank Rich wrote that Mr. Helm brought a “flinty dignity” to his sympathetic role as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980).
Mr. Helm served as narrator in “The Right Stuff” (1983), the film adaptation of writer Tom Wolfe’s account of the Mercury astronauts.
Son of a cotton farmer
Mark Lavon Helm was born May 26, 1940, near Elaine, Ark.; he later went by Levon (pronounced LEE-von). He was raised on the family’s cotton farm in Turkey Scratch, Ark., and started playing guitar at 8.
“You get out of school in May, and that’s when you’ve already started planting cotton,” Mr. Helm told Time magazine in 1970. “You work from there right through till September, and the only break in there is the Fourth of July. I found out at about the age of 12 that the way to get off that stinking tractor, out of that 105-degree heat was to get on that guitar.”
With his sister Linda on washtub bass, Mr. Helm played county fairs and civic clubs. He later took up drums after seeing F.S. Walcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels,an African American vaudeville troupe and medicine show. Years later, the act inspired a Band song, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” written by Robertson, who altered the name to make it more mellifluous.
Mr. Helm was in his late teens when Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins recruited him for his back-up band, the Hawks. They relocated to Toronto in 1959 and recorded two hit records with Mr. Helm on drums, “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou.”
One by one, the future members of The Band gradually joined the Hawks. The Hawks struck out on their own in 1963 and a recording session with blues revivalist John Hammond Jr. , the son of Dylan’s producer, brought them to the attention of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman.
Dylan, then making a controversial shift to electric music, hired the former Hawks for his 1966 tour of the United Kingdom. Mr. Helm, who couldn’t stand the resounding boos from Dylan’s disappointed folk music fans, quit mid-tour and went to work on an oil rig.
While he was healing from a motorcycle accident in 1967, Dylan invited the other Hawks to the songwriter’s home in Woodstock, N.Y. Mr. Helm rejoined the Hawks after the group recorded with Dylan. The Hawks, now rechristened The Band, soon shared quarters in Big Pink, a house in nearby West Saugerties, N.Y., and were shopping their own songs to record labels.
Their first album, “Music From Big Pink” (1968), its cover adorned with a watercolor painting by Dylan, included “The Weight” and the first recording of Dylan’s song “I Shall Be Released.”
“The Weight,” about a traveling musician who seeks lodging in Nazareth, Pa. — not the city in the Holy Land, as assumed by many listeners — ranked No. 41 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The Band again toured as Dylan’s back-up band in 1974.
In 1981, Mr. Helm married Sandra Dodd. Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter, Amy Helm, a singer and pianist, from a previous relationship with songwriter Libby Titus.
Manuel committed suicide in 1986, and Danko died in 1999 after a heart attack. Mr. Helm’s 1993 memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” written with Stephen Davis, described the debauched lifestyle and professional tensions that led to the dissolution of the group. Mr. Helm developed a frosty relationship with Robertson, whom he accused of hogging song credits.
As he struggled with cancer, Mr. Helm said he appreciated making music more than ever.
“We’re just trying to make music now,” Mr. Helm told the Woodstock Times in 2008. “Having it taken away from me has made it more so. This many years later, that’s the most peaceful time in my day, when I’m playing. There’s nothing to worry about, I don’t owe anybody anything, just play the songs and try to make them good.”