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Kids Need Music: The Levon Helm Band Rocks for Ulster County School Artsby Kay Cordtz

When Levon Helm was growing up in rural Arkansas, school was one of the few places where you didn’t hear music, except at an occasional talent show. And only the most enterprising child could manage to sneak into the local Midnight Rambles, risqué musicales that closed the traveling tent shows. Today, the 70-year-old music legend and Ulster County resident is in the forefront of those who steadfastly champion music in the public schools and just about anywhere else that opportunity presents itself. Always on the lookout for ways to turn children on to his own lifelong passion, he has also organized a series of afternoon Kids Rambles at the same barn/studio where he hosts the real deal for adults on Saturday nights.

In the spring of 2005, Helm was the first in the local community to offer a concert by his band to benefit the local school music program. The band played in Onteora High School’s then- dilapidated auditorium. This October 22, Helm’s current lineup—recently returned from a nationwide tour—will bring another night of world-class music to the newly refurbished, 592-seat Harry Simon Auditorium.* Profits from this show will be divided among the five schools in the district.

“We need to help keep music and sports in our schools,” Helm said. “These are our kids we’re talking about. So we want everybody to just come on out and buy one of those VIP seats and know that they’re gonna help the youngsters in their community and also get a good show!”

Though his early efforts were more instinctive than planned out, Helm’s manager Barbara O’Brien said he was determined to help, even if it just meant getting the piano tuned or replacing one of the saxophones. “Levon will help anybody who helps himself,” she said, “and what he did was he lit a fire. And there are other people out there ready to help.”

A wildly successful 2009 fundraiser at Helm’s barn for the Woodstock Elementary School cultural programs is one example. O’Brien credited a group of PTA women who handled all the promotion and advertising, and persuaded community members and local businesses to donate items for a silent auction at Helm’s studio, including two guitars signed by all the members of Helm’s band—the second guitar added at the last minute to settle a bidding war. Lysa Ingalsbe, Woodstock PTA president, was effusive in her praise. “The Levon Helm concert was an evening of musical magic,” she said. “The good spirit of the evening was palpable to all who attended.”

Helm has also been able to share the joy of music with other under-served children. A cancer survivor himself, Helm has joined his daughter Amy and other members of Musicians On Call playing and singing for patients on the children’s wards at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“We’d usually play something traditional or gospel,” he said. “Last time we went, Larry (Campbell) brought his fiddle, and I brought a guitar and Amy brought a mandolin. Usually we play something that they can get in on, like with a sing-along spot where everybody gets to sing.” (To illustrate, he launches into a spirited rendition of “ Let the Church Roll On,” both verses.)

After playing for children in the day room, they’d visit the ones too sick to leave their rooms.

‘We’d put on the gowns and masks and go in and see a kid that’s laying there too sick to even look up, and the next thing you know he’s patting his foot,” Helm said. “You can just see what music does for people—it goes to that softest and hardest place in the human heart.”

At the same time as Helm was singing for sick youngsters and casting about for ways to help the schools, a few more angels of music appeared on his doorstep. Elizabeth Mitchell, a former nursery school teacher, realized the power of children’s music when she had 11 different languages in her classroom on Roosevelt Island near the United Nations. “Music was a way to all come together,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful form of connection.”

Now a well-known musician who records children’s albums for Smithsonian Folkways, Mitchell and husband Dan Littleton are also members of the eclectic underground group Ida, who have recorded at Levon Helm Studios. When Helm sat in on mandolin and found out she played children’s music, a friendship was born. Mitchell remembered “it was always Levon’s desire that children be able to see people playing real instruments because these days, it can be a rare thing in a child’s life to hear a sound coming out of an actual instrument, especially acoustically.”

Mitchell’s nine year-old daughter Storey is living proof of what early music education can do. She not only performs on her parents’ children’s music projects, she also writes a fair number of their songs. The ensemble’s latest CD, Sunny Day, features Helm on drums on “Mystery Train” and “School Days.”

Part time nurse Susie Lampert—who also plays keyboards in Laurie Berkner’s acclaimed children’s band—first met Helm when he was her patient years ago. After watching her band play on the Today Show, he called with an invitation to collaborate. Lampert spent some happy times up in Woodstock sitting at Helm’s kitchen table trying out songs.

“He has a very open mind and heart about kid’s music and I don’t think he sees it any differently than any other kind,” she said. “Some of it just appeals more to kids, but he enters into it in the exact same way.”

Add to the mix the like-minded Robert Warren, aka Uncle Rock, a local children’s musician who promises “Rock for All Ages,” and the seeds of the Kids Ramble were sown. The first one was held in January 2007 and all three participated. Not knowing what to expect or what it would cost, Helm’s staff persuaded local businesses to donate kid-friendly food and drinks. Volunteers cooked, painted little faces, handed out inflatable instruments and helped kids decorate their own cupcakes. As expenses rose and demand increased, tickets went from $10 to $25 and every adult must now be accompanied by a child. Helm has now held several Kids Rambles, each one a full house.

“Everybody brings their toy guitars and we have a jam session,” Helm laughed. “Boy, that’s a funny thing to see—kids jumping up and down like the Rolling Stones. They all have a great time.” Said Mitchell, “We always hope Levon will show up to play with us. He doesn’t always know the songs but they’re always the best versions ever. We can play Korean folk songs and he will come up with an incredible beat that no one else would have ever imagined.”

“Levon has such a gentle, generous spirit—it’s a perfect fit for children,” she observed. “After the set, they were all crowding around his drum kit, wanting to see how it worked and he took one in his lap, let him hold the drumstick and we all knew we were experiencing something very special that just had that magical energy of the day.”

One of those children was now-seven year-old budding drummer Thomas Tamberelli, whose parents, Tom and Dana, have made the three-hour drive from Williamsport, PA to attend every Kids Ramble, sometimes bringing Thomas’ four year-old brother Matthew.

“The kids love the participation,” Tamberelli said. “The first time, they handed out little rattles and we all sat around on the floor on blankets and just had the time of our lives. It’s better than Disneyland.”

Larry Campbell, Helm’s bandleader who has played at Kids Rambles with his wife Teresa Williams, called it “a blast for me. It's just so cool to watch those kids experience that joy and to see how music moves the human soul on a very fundamental level.”

As much as Helm and his crew love such feel-good activities, the band’s touring and studio bookings make scheduling fundraisers difficult. Helm said he will do one a year if the schools join in a united front to promote it and share in the proceeds. This month’s concert is the first event supported by Parents in Partnership (PIP), a group representing all five district schools. The group’s Concert Committee is handling the details.

“What a great thing this could be for our community,” Helm said. “If we all work together and sell out these seats, we can solve our problems. I promise everybody that we’re gonna play as good as we can and they’re gonna have a good time.”

*State aid and the district’s Capital Reserve Fund paid for the $1.5 million auditorium renovation, but with state aid declining and state mandates increasing, the Arts in Education programs still need assistance.

The Levon Helm Band performs at the Harry Simon Auditorium, Onteora High School, Rte. 28, Boiceville, Fri. Oct. 22 at 7 PM. ticket prices are $45-65 general seating and $100 for a limited number of VIP seats. For tickets and for more info.

Bottom photo of author, Kay Cordtz with Levon Helm, all photos taken by Catherine Sebastian

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