Few artists more fully embodied the spirit of rural America than Levon Helm did. From his work in The Band to his staging of Midnight Ramble concerts at his barn-like studio in Woodstock, New York, Helm was an authentic spirit who captured something deep in the heart of small-town life. Helm, who died Thursday, April 19, at age 71, was also one of the most beloved figures in contemporary music. Speaking to USA Today in the wake of Helm’s passing, Warren Haynes, who played with Helm many times, said his friend’s voice “personified Americana,” adding that it was “one of the great voices, and not just in rock ’n’ roll.”
In 2000, not long after Capitol Records reissued The Band’s entire catalog, Helm’s agreed to be interviewed about the making of the group’s second album, titled, simply, The Band. A masterpiece that weaved folk, gospel, country and R&B into a seamless tapestry, the album also was an epic portrait-in-song about frontier America. In the interview, Helm talked about The Band’s musical dynamic and their work with Bob Dylan, and shared his feelings about the group’s legacy. As a tribute to the memory of a great artist, we present that interview here in its entirety, for the very first time.
You recorded The Band in Los Angeles at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house. That must have been a strange experience.
We liked how we had worked at the Big Pink [a house shared by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson in West Saugerties, New York]. The Basement Tapes, Music from Big Pink and probably the better part of a couple of other albums for Bob [Dylan] all came out of those Basement Tapes sessions. That was such a fun, kind of “workshop” situation that we always looked to do that again, as opposed to going into a cold studio, where the clock is ticking away. It’s better to create your own space.
We went out to California and rented Sammy Davis Jr.’s house, which had a pool house, and we turned the pool house into a studio. It wasn’t hard to do that. We boxed in some of the windows, and taped down the metal fireplace so it wouldn’t rattle, and brought in some tape machines and other gear. We didn’t perform for a long time. We cut Music from Big Pink, and then we went right ahead and started cutting The Band, and just about the same thing with the third album. We played shows a bit between the second and third album, but not much.
John Simon, who produced the first two Band albums, said that when the grouprecorded, you would do it in three stages. First, you would determine which instruments and what sounds you would use, and then you would rehearse, and then the following morning, you would cut the track.
That’s the way it worked sometimes. Putting songs together and stuff, a lot of times you don’t know what works until you hear it back. You have to change some things around sometimes, or add or subtract. Oftentimes you don’t know if the voices are right, for instance, until you hear it played back. So after you hear that first demo played back, then you can have the courage of your convictions, and make some changes, or switch some parts around and find some new approaches that serve the tune better.
Is that how you came to decisions about who would sing the lead vocal for a particular song?
Or who would play drums?
Well, for the most part, we pretty much knew that already. On “Rag Mama Rag,” for instance, we knew that Richard [Manuel] would be playing drums. We started putting that song together using that sort of rhythm section. I would play mandolin, and Richard would play drums. That was just another way of having our rhythm section present itself. Things like “In the Pines,” and a lot of standards, lent themselves to Richard playing drums and me playing mandolin. We would also do standards among ourselves, and practice singing harmonies and leads, and swap the parts around, and try to learn to do background voices. That was all brand new stuff for us.
Weren’t you listening to The Staple Singers a lot during this period?
Always. We thought they were the best background singers in the world, and we always tried to emulate their singing styles. That’s probably where we first started thinking about swapping the lead vocal around. Mavis and Pop Staples could do that with the greatest of ease. So we tried to play around with that idea, and it was really good for us. We had never done background vocals for one another, or anything like that. So it was good for us to just sit around, in the Basement Tapes days, and sing and play standards like “In the Pines” – songs where you can have a mandolin, and have three- or four-part harmonies, and swap the various parts around. Trial-and-error was our method of working.
Were you consciously trying not to mimic too closely the style of The Byrds and CSN&Y?
We never thought about that. We knew we had to do the same thing they were doing – The Byrds, and Crosby Stills and Nash – people like that. Delaney & Bonnie & Friends were probably our favorite group. They were a great band, and there were at least three or four lead singers in that outfit, and they all sang great background harmonies for each other as well. We knew we had to try and do that stuff, too. The Band’s deal was that we didn’t have a lead singer. The singing was shared among the members of the group.
How did the songwriting and the arrangements play out?
The writing took place in the way we’ve been talking about. Sometimes we would grow the songs from scratch, there in the studio. Sometimes we would just pull them out of thin air. We had story-songs, and we had picture-songs, and we had songs that emulated things we had heard. And again, we had two different styles of rhythm section – with Richard and me swapping drum duties – which was mainly to accommodate Garth [Hudson’s] ability to trade instruments around. Of course, Garth could play percussion, woodwind and brass.
How much did all the work The Band did with Dylan affect you, from a songwriting standpoint?
Bob pretty much took us down into the basement of the Big Pink and showed us how it’s done, when you get right down to it. Bob’s one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. He’s certainly done as much for The Band, and for myself, as anybody. He’s been fantastic. [When he got criticized for going electric], it would have been real easy for him to say, “Hell, yeah, you’re right. I’m gonna get rid of The Band.” Everybody was telling him, “You don’t need these guys. Listen to the crowd. They don’t want them, either.”
That must have been a tough time for all of you.
It was so tough that I left. That’s how tough it was for me. But I didn’t leave because Bob got shaky, or got unsteady. Bob stuck with us all the way through. And let’s face it: if it wasn’t for Bob, we never would have gotten on Capitol Records.
Some of the ideas Garth came up with on The Band – like the jew’s harp sound on “Up on Cripple Creek” – are amazing.
Yeah, that’s the hook on “Cripple Creek.” That was just a little something extra. Back when we were coming up, you couldn’t record a song without having a hook. Like the kick-off to [Little Richard’s] “Keep A-Knockin’,” for instance – that’s one of [drummer] Earl Palmer’s great licks. Garth was great at coming up with those. He’s great with chords, too. That’s why The Band sounds like The Band, and not like a lot of other groups – because of Garth’s understanding of chord progressions.
Do you remember how “Jawbone” came together, with those weird rhythm changes?
[Laughs] That was Richard [Manuel’s] contribution. Richard wasn’t happy until he made me change rhythm patterns at least twice. [Laughs] I could always depend on a good workout when Richard was helping to write the songs. He might want to go from a shuffle to a march, and vice versa. It was stuff that kept you on your toes all the time. That sort of thing was easy for Richard, so he didn’t give a damn. He could play drums left-handed or right-handed. It didn’t matter.
Recording-wise, I understand it was unusual to record the vocals live-in-the-studio in those days. But you all did do that.
We didn’t know any better. We just went ahead and did it. Once we had the song figured out, and we knew who was supposed to ride what particular horse, then it was a matter of getting the right performance.
Was it just an accident that you were the lead vocalist on the two songs – “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – for which The Band is best-known?
Well, I don’t know. That’s what you say, but for somebody else the best two songs might be two other ones. I never had any false illusions that I was the lead singer. Richard sang “In a Station,” and “Lonesome Suzy,” and all those heart and soul songs. Richard was our voice.
When did it start to emerge that The Band was going to be something of a concept album?
We never said anything like that to one another. We were just putting songs together, and that’s the way they turned out.
What was life like after making The Band?
I never was around [after making The Band album], other than just to go in and perform. After that album, the members of The Band sort of went their own separate ways. We could have had The Last Waltz between [1970’s] Stage Fright and [1971’s] Cahoots. That’s when all the bad stuff started to happen. We never had fist fights, but there weren’t any more records cut. We did live albums, and “Best of” stuff, but we hardly ever sat down and wrote songs with each other again, after The Band album and about half of Stage Fright.
Any final thoughts about those glory years?
These songs started coming for us, and we started learning by trial and error, and we started having some success with the things we were trying. We began to find better ways to record, and better ways to make records, and that’s all we wanted to do. We didn’t play any shows [during that period], and we didn’t consider doing anything else. We just kept ourselves in “studio recording” mode for about two years, almost. After that, it was pretty much all over. But it was pretty good music for awhile. It was just good, honest music.