What Is Interesting About Levon Helm

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well


Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave,
But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

From “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Robbie Robertson as recorded by The Band in 1969.

I remember being exactly my daughter’s current age, 13, and sitting, just as she does, in an 8th grade U.S. history class. The topic? The causes of the U.S. Civil War. The main feature was, of course, slavery, but my teacher ticked off at least half a dozen other less-remembered causes with the assurance that, yes, we would need to know them for the test. The only one I happen to remember at this late date is “tariffs.” How, exactly, tariffs featured in the conflict I couldn’t tell you—I probably only remember that fact at all because it was the first time in my life I’d encountered that particular word. A generation later, I’d wager there still aren’t many 13-year-old students who could use it in a sentence.

I remember looking wearily around my classroom to see if any of my fellow students were doing a better job staying interested than I was. Those of us with our eyes still open basically kept them directed forward, but a nearly palpable fog of teenaged boredom hung in the air.

Since tariffs meant nothing to me, I instead occupied myself by quietly wondering where my family might have been during the Civil War. I had only recently asked my parents where the earlier generations of our family had come from and got a vague and disappointing “back East somewhere” in response. Trust me when I tell you that when you are born and raised in Oregon, being told that your ancestors came from “back East” doesn’t do much to narrow things down. I couldn’t even begin to guess if my ancestors had been aligned with the Union or the Confederacy. And as I looked around a classroom of white, middle-class, West Coast kids, I realized that probably all of them had had family in this country at the time of the Civil War (not a conclusion my daughter would be able to reach, by the way, considering the dozens of immigrant nationalities reflected in the faces of this generation of middle school kids). I doubted if any of them had any clues about how the war might have impacted their families either. Even at age 13, this realization struck a sad chord in me. It seemed like a tragic and elective loss of heritage.

My persistent pestering eventually paid off when my dad finally got interested in finding answers to all my ancestry questions. We eventually discovered that Dad’s ancestors had lived in Pennsylvania at the time of the Civil War. My great-great-great grandfather and his family were members of a Presbyterian congregation that split over the issue of slavery. Old Joe and his family left the fold with the radical abolitionists to found a new up-start church in Mercer County. Nevertheless, when his next-to youngest son was drafted into the Union Army, Joe scraped up close to $300—a sizeable amount of money for a widowed old man who supported his family through farming and back-breaking labor required of a stone mason on the Pennsylvania canals—so that he could give this son a share of his estate in advance of his death in order to hire a substitute.

Two years later, the same son was again drafted into the Union Army. What happened to the substitute, I have no idea. I imagine he skedaddled when things got rough.

With no money left to buy his way out this time, Joe’s son had no choice but to leave his farm, his pregnant wife, and two little children, and report for duty (just in time for the Battle of Gettysburg). A few months later, Joe’s youngest son, then just a teenager, volunteered to join the Union Army too. Both sons ultimately survived, but “suffered in consequence of their service” (as quaintly put by the local published histories) for the remainder of their lives.

Anyway, a bit more compelling than tariffs, don’t you think?

These days, there is little left in the records for me to discover about my own Yankee ancestors. I sifted their unsettled dust until I discovered just about every discoverable fact that remains about their lives and times. This hasn’t in any way quenched my thirst for this sort of historical research, however. So these days, when I find a new and interesting American, I sometimes spend a little time in genealogical databases and dusty county histories to discover where their families were during the Civil War. It’s a hobby of mine. You already knew I had weird hobbies, so this is just another to add to the list. Get over it.

So now we get to Levon Helm, native son of Arkansas, the voice of Virgil Caine and a “mythical Southern Everyman” (according to some, despite his longtime residence in Woodstock, New York). When he came to my attention late last year, I checked out Levon’s autobiography at the library and picked through the first section for any information he included about his parents and grandparents. With those biographical morsels in hand, I was ready to jump into the federal census reports to connect his parents back into previous generations. From there it’s an easy task to plug into established family histories to get a feel for where Levon came from.
Levon’s first American ancestor was Georg Helm, who came to the States (well, Colonies actually) from Germany in the early 1700’s. Georg died in Frederick County, Virginia in 1769. His tombstone, helpfully chiseled in English on one side and German on the reverse, stands to this day in the Reformed Lutheran Churchyard in the town of Winchester.

From their modest start in Virginia, Georg Helm’s descendents moved on to Tennessee. Most of his grandsons remained there, but one, Jacob Helm, moved his family to Fayette County, Illinois, in about 1829. Jacob’s oldest son William (already married to a nice Tennessee girl by that time) packed up his wife and five children and, just a few years later, followed the westward trail blazed by his old man. Once settled in Illinois, William and the missus started farming and continued to add to their family. An additional five children were born after their arrival in Illinois.

Are you getting this, people? Illinois? Land of Lincoln? Was there any state prouder to call itself Yankee territory during the Civil War?

William’s oldest son Harrison, who traveled west from Tennessee with his parents as a teenager, had been born in Tennessee in 1822. He was a 38-year-old resident of Illinois at the start of the Civil War. Because of his age and marital status, he was not subject to the draft (once it was imposed in the North). However, three of Harrison’s younger brothers served in the Union Army: Benjamin, James, and Uriah Helm* all served during the war and undoubtedly laid their share of rebel boys in their graves. And proudly so. Such were the times in Union territory.

Levon is a direct descendent of Harrison Helm. Harrison’s son (another William Helm) was born in Illinois in 1850. For reasons lost to history, William moved on to Arkansas sometime before the birth of his first child in 1874. I can only imagine what sort of reception he got there so soon after the end of the War. William farmed in Arkansas and, in 1882, fathered Jasper Helm (Levon Helm’s grandfather). And there the family stayed through the birth of little Mark Levon Helm in 1940, who grew up to join The Band and provide the first and best voice for the imagined southern farmer Virgil Cain in the classic song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

And so what? So nothing. No, I don’t believe that the fact that Levon Helm’s antecedent generations were blue-blooded Union soldiers detracts in any way from his performance of that particular song. That song is a reflection of a normal, unremarkable American’s experience during a pivotal point in our shared history (and was authored by a Canadian, for that matter). We all share this heritage, regardless of where our individual ancestors hailed from. We all have an equal right to the memories remaining from that era, even the imagined memories. I hope my daughter and her diverse classmates realize this small truth, and that it’s not hidden entirely from sight in classroom discussions of tariffs and the politics of slavery.

* As it turns out, there were two Uriah Helms (cousins), both born in Roane County, Tennessee, in 1833, both of whom eventually came west, and both of whom are buried in the same pioneer cemetery in Fayette County, Illinois (the very definition of a genealogist’s nightmare). I was contacted by a descendent of the Uriah Helm I’ve mentioned here, and she helped me sort out their tangled lives. The Uriah mentioned above was known to the family as “White ’Riar” (because of his fair complexion) and the darker one was called “Black ’Riar.” And that’s so cool that I had to drink a glass of vodka and hit myself in the head with a hammer to celebrate. Seriously though, I wish I had come from a family with a White ’Riar and a Black ’Riar—such days will never come again!