He saw the birth of rock and roll and though he's too much of a gentleman to say it, his role in helping to keep that rebellious child healthy is more than just instrumental. On May 26, 1940, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Arkansas. Diamond was a cotton farmer who entertained occasionally as a musician. The Helm's loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio. A favorite family pastime was attending traveling music shows in the area. According to his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, Levon recalls seeing his first live show, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, at six years old. His description: This really tattooed my brain. I've never forgotten it.
Hearing performers like Monroe and Williamson on the radio was one thing, seeing them live made a huge impression. Levon's father bought him his first guitar at age nine. At ten and eleven, whenever he wasn't in school or at work on the farm, the boy could be found at KFFA's broadcasting studio in Helena, Arkansas, watching Sonny Boy Williamson do his radio show, King Biscuit Time. Helm made his younger sister Linda a string bass out of a washtub when he was twelve years old. She would play the bass while her brother slapped his thighs and played harmonica and guitar. They would sing songs learned at home and popular hits of the day, and billed themselves as Lavon and Linda. Because of their fresh faced good looks, obvious musical talent and Levon's natural ability to win an audience with sheer personality and infectious rhythms, the pair consistently won talent contests along the Arkansas 4-H Club circuit. In 1954, Levon was fourteen years old when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins do a show at Helena. Also performing was a young Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on stand-up bass. They did not have a drummer. The music was early jazz-fueled rockabilly, and the audience went wild. In '55 he saw Elvis once more, before Presley's star exploded. This time Presley had D.J. Fontana with him on drums and Bill Black was playing electric bass. Helm couldn't get over the difference and thought it was the best band he'd seen. The added instruments gave the music solidity and depth. People jumped out of their seats dancing to the thunderous, heart-pumping, rhythms. The melting pot that was the Mississippi Delta had boiled over and evolved. It's magnificently rich blues was uniting with all the powerful, new, spicy-hot sounds and textures that became rock and roll.