WOODSTOCK — It wasn’t a band of angels that laid Levon Helm to rest Friday afternoon. It was a band of drummers, surrounded by bands of broken-hearted brothers and sisters.
Woodstock’s favorite musical son was buried at Woodstock Cemetery Friday in a private service that still attracted several-hundred fans, friends and strangers, some of whom said they felt like they’d known the man who led The Band for all their lives.
The crowd — mostly boomers — began building along Tinker Street, the village’s main drag, at 10 a.m. With only rumors to guide them, they stood in blustery weather for the next three-plus hours, hoping to pay their respects — some said their debts — to Helm, who died last week a month shy of his 72nd birthday.
They came from near and far. Andrea Ferrara was there to bear witness. Leslie Sullivan was on a pilgrimage from near Boston. Christina DeRosa walked from her Tannery Brook Road home.
Ferrara said she’d been living in town only five months and never got to a Ramble. But there she sat, on stone stairs outside a Tinker Street shop, her presence honoring the man whose “energy radiated through the town.”
Sullivan surprised herself by making the trek from Norwood, Mass., to Woodstock alone.
“I felt I had to be here. It just felt right.”
DeRosa clutched some daffodils she wanted to place on Helm’s grave. She’d gone to the public service at Helm’s home the day before and was surprised at the lack of music.
“It was the first time I was there without music, and it felt sad.”
The crowd also expected music. Rumor had it that a renowned high school marching band, the Jackson (N.J.) Jaguars Drum Line, would parade down Tinker Street, New Orleans-style.
But the rumor was only partly correct. The drum line arrived about 1:30 p.m. and led a stream of about 100 cars carrying friends, family and invited guests to the cemetery grounds. The crowd retreated to stations along the cemetery’s fenced-in periphery, straining to see and hear the service.
Those who settled along a dirt bank behind the municipal parking lot fell silent at the sound of a choral version of the Stanley Brother’s mournful classic, “Angel Wings,” that was almost snatched away by the chill wind.
“The latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run / My strongest trials now are past, my triumph is begun.”
About 20 minutes later, the wind didn’t stand a chance against the joyful strains of “Ophelia,” which was performed by an all-star cast of local musicians who fulfilled part of the rumors by parading, Dixieland-style, along the cemetery’s winding roads.
It was, as Helm’s former road manager Butch Dener said, a fitting way to say goodbye:
“We’re sending him home the Southern way, and no one was more Southern than Levon.”