Levon Helm Boyhood Home

 City: Marvell, County: Phillips
 Location: northeast corner of Carruth Avenue and North Elm Street

c.1950 boyhood home of Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm.
Listed in Arkansas Register of Historic Places on 08/01/2018

 

Summary

 

Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm was born on May 26, 1940, in Phillips County, Arkansas.He grew up in and around the delta town of Marvell, Arkansas, where he lived and worked on his family’s cotton farm in the small community of Turkey Scratch.During his early years in Phillips County, Helm developed a deep love for music that would help propel him to become a member of The Band, an acclaimed Canadian rock group.The Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm Boyhood Home is being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criterion B, with local significance, under Performing Arts for the property’s association with the early life of Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm and the influence of the area on his later musical career.The property is also being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criteria Consideration B as a structure removed from its original location but which is significant for its association with a historic person.

 

Elaboration

 

Phillips County is located along the eastern edge of Arkansas, adjacent to the Mississippi River.The area is part of a 15-county region known as the Arkansas Delta Byways due to the proximity of two National Scenic Byways.[1]The area where the St. Francis empties into the Mississippi River and the White River basin to the south both create a prime agricultural area throughout Phillips County.Due to the rich soil along the Mississippi River, European settlers had arrived and settled in the area that would become Phillips County by the last decade of the 18th century.[2] In 1820, Phillips County was created by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature out of a portion of the previously established Arkansas County.[3]The county was named for one of the earliest European settlers of the area, Sylvannus Phillips.By 1833, the city of Helena, named for Sylvannus Phillips daughter, was incorporated along the shores of the Mississippi River.

 

From its earliest immigrant settlement, the area of Phillips County was a prime cotton farming area, with many large plantations scattered across the county before the Civil War.After the Civil War, through the mid-20th century, the area continued to be dominated by agricultural use, mainly cotton farming, with many sharecroppers and small farms throughout the county.The surrounding delta area was also known during the early to mid-20th century as the birthplace of the Delta Blues, with its cultural capital at Helena, Arkansas.The musical background of the surrounding delta lands helped to create several renowned musicians including Robert Lockwood, Jr., another Turkey Scratch native, and Sonny Boy Williamson II of KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time.”The influence of the Delta Blues on the music of the United States and the world can be traced through the creation of jazz, rhythm and blues (R&B), rock and roll, and hip-hop as well as in the transformation of country and western, gospel and bluegrass genres of music.[4]Today, the Delta Byways organization also recognizes the history of music in the Delta region with the Arkansas Delta Music Heritage Trail.[5]This trail traces the history of music through several communities throughout the eastern region of the state; all of which have played a major role in the formation and continuation of folk and blues music.

 

The early Blues musicians of the Mississippi River Delta also influenced the next musical generation; including the many early rock and rollers who grew up in Arkansas.These early Arkansas rockers included Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, Roland Janes, Ronnie and Dale Hawkins, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Roy Buchanan, and Levon Helm.[6]

 

Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm

 

Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm was born on May 26, 1940, in Phillips County, Arkansas.He grew up in and around the delta town of Marvell, Arkansas, where he lived and worked on his family’s cotton farm in the small community of Turkey Scratch.Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, continues to be a small, unincorporated community that stretches across the county line between Lee County and Phillips County, with its main crossroads at the intersection of Phillips County Road 137, Lee County Road 100, and Lee County Road 177.The Helm family home was originally located near the Thompson Store, which still exists near the intersection that makes of the heart of the Turkey Scratch community.According to Mr. Richard Butler, who moved the house from its original location to his property along with two other sharecropper houses in order to save them from being demolished, the house was located across the road from the Thompson Store just north of the Lee County line.

 

Jasper Diamond “J.D.” Helm was born in Monroe County, Arkansas, in 1910.[7]By the age of 9, J. D. Helm was living with his family near the community of Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas.In his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm recounted how his father remembered waiting with his brother and father on their front porch with pistols and shotguns during the Elain race riots of 1919.[8]In the early 1930s, J. D. Helm, who was known locally by his middle name Diamond, was working on a cotton farm during the week and as a musician during the weekends.Diamond Helm played guitar in a local band at parties across the area.In 1933, Diamond Helm married Nell Wilson at the Baptist Church in Elaine.[9]Their first child, daughter Modena Helm, was born in 1934 and Mark Lavon Helm was born six years later.[10]

 

Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm was born May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Arkansas, but resided north of Marvell until his graduation from High School.As a result of the location of his birth and early childhood, Levon was immersed in the blues culture, which subsequently fostered his interest in folk, Americana and Rockabilly music.After Lavon “Levon” Helm was born, the family moved to what he describes as “a tiny rural farming community called Midway, because our long dirt road intersected with the hard gravel road about midway between the village of Turkey Scratch and the town of Marvell.”[11]Here, two more children were born to the family, Linda and Wheeler.

 

“So that’s where we grew up, way back off the hard road, miles through the cotton fields, almost all the way to Big Creek.Don’t even think about electricity.We might have used a battery-powered radio until I was ten years old.”[12]

His childhood consisted of attending elementary school at the County Line School inside the Turkey Scratch church, helping pick cotton on his family’s farm and developing an affinity for music that was supported by the blues culture in his community and the music played in the church.

 

At six years of age, Helm knew he wanted to be a part of the music industry after attending a performance by bluegrass musician Bill Monroe in Marvell. [13] “I was nine years old in 1949.That was the year I got my first guitar and started farming with my dad.The land was our legacy …Most of the farm houses we lived in were raised up on stilts.My dad started me on the tractor that spring.”[14] By the age of nine, he was playing guitar alongside his bass playing sister, Linda.[15]Levon Helm continued to learn to play other instruments including the drums and mandolin.

 

“We got our supplies from A. B. Thompson’s grocery store in Turkey Scratch.Mr. Thompson was also our amateur country doctor; he’d bandage you up if you fell off your bicycle or stepped on a thorn.There was a one-room school at Turkey Scratch church called the County Line School, with all the grades together.Our teacher, Miss Stella Harris, lived with the Thompsons during the school term.This is where I started my education.”[16]

 

In September 1949, Levon Helm started at the Marvell school, after many of the small school houses in the surrounding area were consolidated.Marvell is also where Levon Helm formed his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while attending Marvell High School.He also played at local community events such as Boys and Girls Club meetings and 4-H Center activities.Also during his childhood, Levon Helm’s boyhood home was destroyed twice, once by a tornado and then by fire.Although it is unclear which house he is describing, either his early home near Elaine or the later home in Midway, the Helm family home was blown away by a tornado on an early July night.

“One summer night, after a big July Fourth family dinner, all hell broke loose…There was leftover pecan pie and fried chicken on the table when the house started shaking.My father was about to tell everyone to run for the ditch when the whole house cartwheeled over and over, ending up in the cotton field as the wood stove, furniture, dishes, and people crashed around in a mess of broken glass and debris.When the house stopped rolling, they climbed out a window and walked over to the neighbors, using the light from the flickering lightning to find their way.”[17]

 

In c. 1950, the Helm family’s home was destroyed by fire while the entire family was away from home.

 

“I’ll never forget one summer night when I was maybe ten.The whole family was at a ball game I was playing in when someone came and told us our farmhouse was on fire.We all piled into our pickup truck… We rounded that old turn in the road and saw our house had burned completely down.There was nothing left… Anyway, Diamond moved us into Gotze’s store

nearby, which was empty because the owners had moved away.We put a kitchen and lived there until we got another house built up.This was the first of several trials by fire I’ve had in my life.”[18]

 

After high school graduation in 1958, Ronnie Hawkins invited Levon Helm to join his successful bar band named, The Hawks.

 

“We left for Canada when school let out in May… an Momma gave me her blessing as well… I remember watching her waving good-bye in the rearview mirror as I drove the Hawk’s car down our country road, away from the life I’d known in Turkey Scratch, toward a whole new world a thousand miles north.” [19]

 

Helm reported in his autobiography that fellow Hawks band members had difficulty pronouncing “Lavon” correctly and started calling him “Levon” (LEE-von) because it was easier to pronounce.[20]By the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan was interested in performing electric rock music and asked The Hawks to be his back-up band. With the fans dislike for the electric music, Helm returned to Arkansas for two years to consider his next move in his musical career.He eventually returned to Woodstock to rejoin the group. The Hawks recorded a large number of demo and practice tapes at Woodstock, playing almost daily with Dylan.Because Dylan had withdrawn from public life in the previous year, these recordings were widely bootlegged and were partially released officially in 1975 as the infamous “Basement Tapes”.

 

Eventually, the group turned the nickname, The Band, into their true band name, touring the world and playing in what is characterized as one of the greatest musical events of all time which defined a generation in Woodstock, New York, in 1969.Helm remained with The Band until their last performance on November 25, 1976.This performance became known as The Last Waltz, after being captured in a documentary by Martin Scorsese.Levon Helm also found success as an actor with roles in the films, Coal Miner’s Daughter, End of the Line, Fire Down Below, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Right Stuff; winning a Country Music Award for his role in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

 

In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, which caused him to lose his singing voice. After treatment, his cancer eventually went into remission, and he gradually regained the use of his voice. This is when The Midnight Ramble began in his home studio, “The Barn” in Woodstock, NY.The Midnight Rambles featured musicians such as Garth Hudson, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Mavis Staples, Chris Robinson, Donald Fagen, Jimmy Vivino, the Max Weinberg 7, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Kris Kristofferson, and many others.

 

In 2007, Levon released his album, Dirt Farmer, which earned him a Grammy Award in the Traditional Folk Album category. He followed with another album, Electric Dirt, in 2009 which won a Grammy in the Americana category.Helm was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with The Band in 1994.[21]Levon Helm died on April 19, 2012, due to complications from throat cancer at age 71.

 

The modest Helm family home, referred to as Levon Helm’s Boyhood Home, represents his deep ties to the south and the influence rural Arkansas had on his life. The home was originally located in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, and sat across from A. B. Thompson Store.Several years ago, the Helm home and two other similar farm houses were purchased by Richard Butler and his business partner Jeremy Carroll.The three houses were moved from their original locations to Monroe County, near a 1870s plantation home that was being restored by Butler and Carroll.In 2013, the large plantation house burned and Butler and Carroll donated the surviving Helm house to the Marvell Civic Club.Soon, the house was moved to a small park in Marvell, where, as of 2018, it was undergoing restoration.[22]The community of Marvell was chosen as the new site for the home as this location is the closest incorporated city to Turkey Scratch and also where Levon Helm attended school from the 4th grade through High School.

 

Statement of Significance

 

The Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm Boyhood Home is being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criterion B, with local significance, under Performing Arts for the property’s association with the early life of Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm and the influence of the area on his later musical career.The property is also being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criteria Consideration B as a structure removed from its original location but which is significant for its association with a historic person.The move of the structure from a very rural community, Turkey Scratch, to a more urban park setting in the community of Marvell, means this property is not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Arkansas Delta Byways’ Tourism Association. (2017). Explore the Delta. Retrieved from www.deltabyways.com/about.

 

“Arkansas Delta Byways Music Heritage Trail.”Arkansas Delta Byways.https://www.deltabyways.com/trails.

 

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. (2017). Levon Helm Marker. Retrieved from www.arkansas.com/attractions/detail/levon-helm-marker/96750.

“The Band.”Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/band.

Berry, John W.“Levon Helm: Project to Restore Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, Home Underway.”Poughkeepsie Journal.14 August 2017.Web.Retrieved fromhttps://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/entertainment/2017/08/14/levon-helm-project-restore-turkey-scratch-arkansas-home-underway/565536001/.

Bowden, Bill.“Fans Find House’s New Spot.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas, 6 May 2018.

Bowden, Bill.“Helming a Memorial.”The Free Weekly.3 August 2017.Web.Retrieved from www.freeweekly.com/2017/08/03/helming-a-memorial.

Clifft, Billy Steven.“Phillips County.”Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Central Arkansas Library System, 29 December 2017. Web.< www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net>.Retrieved 24 May 2018.

Daugherty, Steve.“Down Home With...Levon Helm.”People, 9 May 1994.Retrieved from www.people.com/archive/down-home-with-levon-helm-vol-041no17/.

 

Helm, Levon. “The Music.”Razor Magazine, February 2004.Retrieved from http://theband.hiof.no/articles/the_music_razor_february_2004.html.

 

Helm, Levon and Stephen Davis. This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993.

 

Hibblen, Michael.“Memorial Planned for Music Icon Levon Helm in East Arkansas.”KUAR, 27 July 2017.Retrieved from http://ualrpublicradio.org/post/memorial-planned-music-icon-levon-helm-east-arkansas.

Hoskyns, Barney.Across the Great Divide:The Band and America.Milwaukee, WI:Hal Leonard, 2006.

Interview of Anna Lee Amsden.Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History.October 2015.Pryorcenter.uark.edu.

“Jasper Diamond Helm.” The National Archives at Fort Worth, Teas; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Record Group:Records of the Selectives Service System, 1926-1975, RG 147.

 

“J. Diamond Helm.” North Little Rock City Directory, Arkansas, 1956.p 269.

 

Koch, Stephen.“Blues Music.”Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Central Arkansas Library System, 22 December 2017. Web.<www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net>.Retrieved 24 May 2018.

 

Nelson, Rex. Pride of Turkey Scratch. Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas.26 July 2017. p 13.

 

Rogers, Bryan.“Levon Helm (1940-2012).”Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Central Arkansas Library System, 27 October 2015. Web.< www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net>.Retrieved 24 May 2018.



[1] Arkansas Delta Byways’ Tourism Association, 2017, Explore the Delta, Retrieved from www.deltabyways.com/about.

[2] Billy Steven Clifft, “Phillips County,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Central Arkansas Library System, 29 December 2017, www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Koch, “Blues Music,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Central Arkansas Library System, 22 December 2017, www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

[5] “Arkansas Delta Byways Music Heritage Trail,” Arkansas Delta Byways, https://www.deltabyways.com/trails.

[6] Koch, “Blues Music,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

[7] J.D. Helm’s WWII Draft Registration Card notes that he was born in Good Luck, Arkansas, on Marcy 4, 1910.“Jasper Diamond Helm,” The National Archives at Fort Worth, Teas; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Record Group:Records of the Selectives Service System, 1926-1975, RG 147.Levon Helm and Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993. p 15.

[8] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 15.

[9] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 17.

[10] “I was born in the house my father rented on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, near Elaine, Arkansas.”Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 13.

[11] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 17.

[12] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 17-18.

[13] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 19-20.

[14] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 27.

[15] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 33.

[16] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 22.

[17] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 24.

[18] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 33.

[19] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, p 50.

[20] Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band.

[21] “The Band.”Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/band.

[22] It was also noted in early 2018 that pieces of the other two homes from the Turkey Scratch area owned by Butler and Carroll were being used for parts to restore the Helm family house.Bill Bowden, “Fans Find House’s New Spot,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas, 6 May 2018.

 


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