Levon Helm: The 2007 Fresh Air Interview
When The Band was backing Dylan in 1965, Time magazine described the combination as "in some ways the most decisive moment in rock history." The Band went on to record its own highly influential albums Music From Big Pink and The Band in 1968 and '69, before splitting up in the mid-'70s.
After The Band, Helm began working on his own solo efforts and toured with a variety of musicians, including Ringo Starr. After taking time off to battle throat and vocal-cord cancer, Helm reemerged in the late 2000s. In 2007, he released the album Dirt Farmer, which received the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, as well as many accolades from music critics. The Washington Post called Dirt Farmer "an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it."
After Dirt Farmer, Helm performed solo and with other musicians, and also continued to dabble in acting. (He'd played Loretta Lynn's father in the biopic Coal Miner's Daughter and had a part in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.) Helm also began presiding over monthly concerts in a barn on his Woodstock, N.Y., property, which he called "Midnight Rambles." The first featured a performance from blues legend Johnnie Johnson, and later brought out musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello.
Helm appeared on Fresh Air twice, first in 1993 and then again in 2007. Interview highlights from the 2007 conversation are below.
On His Midnight Rambles
"They're basically music parties. We have, you know, two, three, sometimes one a week, at least two or three a month. And we have them on Saturday nights in Woodstock at the studio. And it started out as basically a modern version of the old-fashioned rent party. But since then, the musicians that have taken part in it have really raised it to another level. And this, I guess, it's three years going on four years later now, and we have people that are coming in from all over the place to celebrate with us. And that includes the players, too."
On The Midnight Rambles He'd Seen As A Child
"One of my favorite traveling tent shows at the time was an outfit called, it was called the F.S. Walcott's Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. And this was a big four-pole or five-pole tent that they set up, and they parked two of the big tractor-trailer flatbeds side to side to make the stage, put the tent around that. And they had a chorus line, a band, a troupe of singers, dancers and players. And they would put on in these small towns through the South, they would play every week, and ... at the end of the concert, which would be over around 10:30, 11, they would offer a midnight ramble ticket. And for the people who could stay up late, all the kids were supposed to go home and get ready for school or Sunday school, and the grown-ups could stay and buy an extra ticket and get an extra half-hour, 45 minutes of music and spicier jokes. And one of the prettiest girls in the chorus line would do a little hoochie-coochie, and what a show."
On Performing At Larger Venues
"Those big things, you know, they're kind of a payoff in a way, I guess. But they're not very much fun. I've never been able to hear myself correctly in one of those situations. And it's basically like sticking your head in a barrel and trying to perform. And you do the best you can, but some of the worst shows I've ever played have been in those big places."
On Family Ties
"They are stronger for me now. And I've always appreciated my family and friends, you know, and those ties that bind us together. But it's like my music, this much later, and after you've almost gotten everything taken away from you, once you get that back, boy, it's a joyful life that we've all been given. And, you know, you can really — you know, when you see a young nephew or a young person in your family that's blood-related, and you see them for the first time, and they're not old enough to know that you're all related, but you can look into their face and they look into your eyes and you both know it. You know, we take it for granted and, you know, we enjoy that kind of thing without even a big thank you most of the time."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Drummer Levon Helm, whose great drumming and singing was a key element of the group The Band, died yesterday at the age of 71, of complications from throat cancer.
Levon Helm sang lead vocal on such classic tracks by The Band as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Wait." As Jon Pareles wrote in today's New York Times, quote, "In Mr. Helm's drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged. His voice held the bluesy, weathered and resilient essence of his Arkansas upbringing in the Mississippi Delta," unquote.
When The Band's album "Music from Big Pink" came out in 1968, it was an event in the music world, and their follow-up album was just as impressive. It included this song, on which Helm sang lead vocal.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN")
LEVON HELM: (Singing) Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train till Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again. In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive. By May the 10th, Richmond had fell. It's a time I remember, oh, so well.
(Singing) The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing. The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing. They went la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
(Singing) Back with my wife in Tennessee...
BIANCULLI: On today's show, we're going to hear two interviews Terry recorded with Levon Helm, first a 1993 interview about his work with The Band, and then a conversation recorded in 2007, after Levon Helm recorded "Dirt Farmer," his first solo album in 25 years.
The Band first got together as The Hawks, when they backed an energetic rock-a-billy singer from Arkansas named Ronnie Hawkins. Levon Helm was from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. The other members of the band were from Canada. Soon after they broke from Hawkins to form their own group, they got a call from Bob Dylan. He was looking for a band. That's where we'll start Terry's 1993 interview with Levon Helm.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So what was it like when you got the phone call, when Bob Dylan called and said he was looking for a band? This was about the time that "Like a Rolling Stone" was a hit on the radio.
HELM: That's right. "Rolling Stone" was out, and I think that particular album was the first time that Bob had used a band, and it was something new, something that he wanted to do. And we - I didn't know a whole lot about Bob. We were more into R&B and blues music.
GROSS: Well, in fact, you write that you thought he was too folky.
HELM: Well, we weren't big folk fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: We were more - we liked more instruments. We liked a rhythm section. We liked horns. We liked a full house on the bandstand, and Bob was coming from more of a troubadour, you know, just-him-and-his-guitar kind of a place. And I didn't really know who he was. I hadn't connected the name with the song "Like a Rolling Stone" that was playing on the radio.
And he called us down at Tony Marts in Somers Point, New Jersey, and asked if we wanted to play the Hollywood Bowl with him. And I said sure, you know. Who else is going to be on the program? And he said just us. We asked the Colonel, our agent, if Bob could fill up the Hollywood Bowl. And the Colonel said that he thought he could.
And we had a couple rehearsals, and we ended up playing Forest Hills with Bob, a couple of us. Robbie and myself came out of our group, and he had Harvey Brooks and Al Kooper that he had played with, I guess, up at Newport.
GROSS: Yeah, now when he played at Newport, he was booed by - at the Newport Folk Festival, he was booed by the crowd there because he had just gone electric, which was very controversial. So...
HELM: Well, he was booed when we went electric with him at Forest Hills, too.
GROSS: Right. Well, did he give you advice on what to do if you got booed?
HELM: He told us, we had a little huddle there backstage before we went on for the second half. He played the first half by himself, and it went just smooth as silk, and the crowd loved it. And the second half, we huddled, and he - we knew. We had read and heard about, you know, things getting a little bit tough in Newport.
He told us whatever happens, don't stop playing. Just keep playing and give it a chance to settle down. And we did, and I don't know if it ever settled or not.
GROSS: You left The Band shortly after it became Dylan's back-up band. Why did you leave it? I mean, this was like, in retrospect, a great opportunity for the group.
HELM: Well, it was, and, you know, I probably could have been smarter about it, but we had played most of the American part of the tour. Bob was - wanted to play in Europe. He wanted to go to Australia. And so we played through the Northeast, which was pretty tough, towns like Boston. They gave us a standing ovation of boos.
And at the same time, we would hit Fort Worth, Texas, and it would be just another good rock-and-roll party. But it started wearing on me, and I got to the point where I couldn't find enough funny things to laugh about it. I didn't feel like joking around all the time like I usually do. And rather than really make a boner, I decided that maybe I should let the tour go ahead to Europe and to Australia and some foreign places without running the risk of making a monkey out of myself.
So I stayed back and waited on everybody. I went back to Arkansas and played with the Cate Brothers Band and kind of picked up where I'd left off, playing dances and so forth.
GROSS: So you rejoined The Band after The Band moved to the Catskills, which was after Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident.
HELM: Yes, ma'am. He had a bike, spilled his bike after they got back. So it kind of changed directions, and instead of so much touring, there was a lot of extra time, you know, to put music together. And Garth set up his Ampex tape machine in the basement there at Big Pink, and we started getting together and just putting songs together and trying our voices, you know, finding out, you know, how to stack our harmonies and just things like that that helped us out later on.
GROSS: So when you moved to the Catskills, and The Band was living in a house that was pink and was nicknamed Big Pink, did you move into the house with them?
HELM: Yes, I did. I moved into the house there. There was an extra spot for me. And we used it as our headquarters and music room for a couple or three years there.
GROSS: What was it like to all live together and play together? It could get very insular. You could really get on each other's nerves in a situation like that.
HELM: Well, not for us. We had been doing this for years. We had traveled and shared the same bedroom and bed on different occasions. There had certainly been times when maybe we could afford two rooms, and after a few flips of the old coin, we found out who was going to get the couch and who might get an extra pillow and take the floor.
So, no, we got along good, and things were a lot of fun for us. We had never had that kind of time on our hands. We had come from the school of playing six nights a week and a dance on Sundays, if we could manage it. And, of course, Ronnie Hawkins could usually manage to book that extra night.
So, all of a sudden, there we are in the Catskills, and we don't have a show to play that night. So we were enjoying it, just sitting around and, you know, the freedom to go down and play some music or go outside and throw a football around at each other.
GROSS: The Band's name was not initially supposed to be The Band. What was it supposed to be, and how did you end up with the name The Band?
HELM: We didn't know what it was supposed to be, and we had signed an agreement with Capitol Records. Well, it hadn't come to that yet. We were trying to sign an agreement, and we ended up signing the agreement as The Crackers, and we thought that was funny. Nobody else did, especially the record company.
GROSS: Was the joke that everybody except you was from the North?
HELM: Well, that, you know, we tried the Honkies, just for variety.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: And they didn't think that was too funny, either. But people referred to us as The Band. You know, Bob's at the hotel, and The Band is headed for the sound check. So on "The Big Pink" record, when it came time for the credits to list everybody's names, I think it said something like The Band, and then underneath it, it told you who all was in the band.
So when we cut our second record, the record company kind of shifted that back around, and they liked that better than The Crackers.
GROSS: It's funny, here was this band that had been on the road together for so long, right, and now that you had gotten used to recording in the basement and had an album out, you didn't really want to go on the road.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: Well, you know, by the time we got our record recorded, we had learned a whole lot more than we had ever known before about our, you know, the way we sounded and the different combinations we could use by changing instruments around.
So we didn't want to go on the road. We wanted to continue to record and try and refine some of our formulas, you know, to help us do better music. And we thought the closer we stuck with it, now that we had learned the fundamentals of playing music in a recording studio, we didn't want to go back to playing live and forget what we had learned, and we wanted to kind of keep honing that particular style of chops.
It's different playing in a studio than it is playing live, of course. So we had managed to develop some studio chops, and we didn't want to back away from it that quick.
GROSS: When did things start going bad for The Band, within The Band, dissention and things like that? I mean, for example, you write in the book about how really annoyed you were when you'd see on records that Robbie Robertson had all the songwriting, or most of the songwriting credits.
HELM: Well, that was a bit of a distraction. I didn't think it was quite fair - not that Robbie didn't do a lot of the songwriting, most of it, in some spots. But at the same time, Richard did some good work, and I always thought that Garth and Rick and myself was there all the way, no matter whose idea the song was or if it was halfway there, or - you know, it was finished, most of our stuff then got finished under that workshop kind of circumstance.
And that was just one of the things that came up that kind of created a little bit of tension in the group. I could see it, you know, hampering our collaboration, and it, you know, started bothering the spirit of it.
GROSS: Robbie Robertson, in I guess it was '76, decided he wanted to leave The Band, and that The Band should break up and have this big finale concert and go out with a real bang. You didn't want The Band to break up, so you tried to resist that. But I guess you weren't able to.
HELM: Well, I wasn't. By then, maybe "The Last Waltz" started back, you know, during some of the disenchantment that I felt when the songs didn't reflect what I thought was the true spirit of things. So by the time "The Last Waltz" came up, it was no secret our collaboration and - I felt - that the quality of our music had suffered.
I didn't hear us getting better. I heard us, you know, doing albums with old songs that we liked, as opposed to getting in and really trying to grow a fresh crop of songs. And so I certainly didn't want to end The Band. "The Last Waltz," you know, didn't set right with me. But, you know, there comes a time when we all want to move on, and that's what we did.
GROSS: Do you think you ever reconciled with Robbie Robertson?
HELM: Well, at this point, there's not a lot of reconciliation that has to be done. You know, that was the way I felt at the time, and it's this much later now, and we're doing good. And Robbie's doing good with his solo career. So it probably all worked out for the best.
BIANCULLI: Drummer and singing Levon Helm, speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. He died yesterday at the age of 71. We'll hear Terry's interview with him from 2007 after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: We're remembering Levon Helm, who died yesterday at age 71. Terry Gross spoke with Levon Helm a second time in 2007, when he released "Dirt Farmer," his first solo album in 25 years. It won a Grammy Award that year as Best Traditional Folk Album.
It's remarkable that his singing on that recording was that good, considering that in 1998, he had been diagnosed with cancer in his vocal chords. He was able to start singing again six years later. And just before that, he began presiding over what he calls his Midnight Rambles, intimate concerts with his famous and not-so-famous friends at the barn that became his home recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Here's the opening track from "Dirt Farmer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALSE HEARTED LOVER'S BLUES")
HELM: (Singing) False hearts have been my downfall. Pretty women have been my craze. I'm sure my false-hearted lover will drive me to my lonesome grave. They'll bite the hand that feeds them, spending money you can save. From your heart strings weave silk garters, they'll build a dog house on your grave.
(Singing) When my earthly stay is over, sink my dead body in the sea. Just tell my false-hearted lover that the whales will watch over me.
GROSS: That's Levon Helm from his new CD, "Dirt Farmer." Levon Helm, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I wasn't sure what to expect when I put your CD on, because I knew about your vocal cancer, and your singing is so great on this, and it's so full-out. And I'm wondering if the act of singing has changed for you, either technically or emotionally, since your recovery.
HELM: You know, it's a lot more fun for me these days. I'm not quite as hard on myself as I used to be. I still haven't fallen in love with the sound of my voice, but I am able to get some satisfaction when we try and do these tunes. And my voice don't sound a whole lot better than it did before I had cancer.
But I had a period of time there for about two-and-a-half years or so where I had to just kind of whisper or either write you a note and tell you what I wanted you to know. And, of course, you know, there's nothing I can do except just be the drummer, which is my main ambition, anyway.
But it sure is a whole lot brighter of a future now that I can sing my part and help out with some of the lead vocals.
GROSS: Let's hear another song from your new CD "Dirt Farmer," and I want to play "The Blind Child." I really love your recording of this. I wasn't familiar with the song before. How do you know this song?
HELM: Oh, that's one of those old, back-porch songs that my dad and my mom and my aunts and uncles used to sing and play for each other. Those were - "Blind Child" and "Little Birds" and "The Girl I Left Behind," those were some of the first songs that we started with.
GROSS: You said you learned this song as a child. Did the song scare you as a child because it's about a child who's blind and whose mother has died, and - it's a really tragic song.
HELM: Yes, it is. It's one of those story songs, a true-to-life kind of a song. And those were the songs that people really went for back then. Anything else was suspect. It could be something that somebody just made up, you know...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: ...with no real bearing to it. So songs like that were the ones that had lasted and stood the test of time when my folks came along.
GROSS: Well, let's hear "Blind Child," and this from Levon Helm's new CD, "Dirt Farmer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLIND CHILD")
HELM: (Singing) They tell me, father, that tonight you'll wed another bride, that you will clasp her in your arms, where my dear mother died. They say her name is Mary, too, the name my mother wore. But tell me, father, is she kind as the one you loved before?
(Singing) And is her step so soft and light, her voice so meek and mild? And tell me, father, will she love your blind and helpless child?
BIANCULLI: That's drummer and singer Levon Helm, who was speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. He died yesterday at age 71. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2007 interview with Levon Helm, who died yesterday at age 71. He was the drummer in the group The Band and sang the lead vocal on "The Weight." In 1998, he was diagnosed with cancer in his vocal chords. He made is recording comeback nine years later with the CD "Dirt Farmer," on which he sang and played drums. "Dirt Farmer," his 2009 recording "Electric Dirt," and his 2011 album "Ramble At The Ryman," were all Grammy winners. On "Dirt Farmer," his daughter sang harmony and played a key part in getting the recording made.
GROSS: You know, I'm interested in the fact that you've done an album of largely traditional songs and more contemporary songs written in the manner of traditional songs. You know, I listened back to our 1993 interview a few days ago and I had quoted to you something in your memoir which was published in '93 and you had said that you were reluctant to record with Dylan initially because you thought Dylan was too folky. And in the interview you said "we," meaning your band at the time, The Hawks, we were more into R&B and blues music. We weren't big folk fans. We liked horns, rhythm sections. We liked the full house on the bandstand. And Bob Dylan was coming from more of a troubadour kind of place, just him and his guitar.
GROSS: What happened between then and now to change your mind about recording folk music?
HELM: Well, it sounds like we all got religion, don't it?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HELM: Yeah. You know, what I meant to say, I guess, is I still kind of feel that way. I'm a drummer, and Bob was a strummer without a drummer when we first ran into each other. So, you know, I'm just not drawn to songs that don't involve a set of drums and a full rhythm section.
GROSS: So do you feel like you transformed certain traditional folk songs by putting your beat behind them?
HELM: Well, I think I've made it a little bit easier in spots, maybe a little more danceable.
HELM: And hopefully I've made it, you know, easier for people from my school, the, you know, the full house rhythm section school to hear.
GROSS: Since 2006 you've been doing midnight rambles...
GROSS: ...at, basically at your home and studio.
GROSS: And these are - you describe what they are.
HELM: Well, they're basically music parties. We have, you know, two, three, sometimes one a week, at least two or three a month. And we have them on Saturday nights in Woodstock at the studio. And it started out as basically a modern version of the old fashioned rent party. But since then the musicians that have taken part in it have really raised it to another level. And this, I guess, it's three years going on four years later now, and we have people that are coming in from all over the place to celebrate with us. And that includes the players, too.
GROSS: Did you need it as a rent party? Because I know when you - after you got sick you had to declare bankruptcy.
HELM: This is true. Well, it started off as a rent party, so to speak. It looked like the studio was going to be put on the blocks because I was in pretty rough shape financially. And just as I started to kind of get my voice back and was able to work a little more is when we tried the midnight ramble. And it paid the rent so we basically kept it up. And now this much later it's really turned into a benefit for a lot of players.
GROSS: Now, you named the midnight ramble after concerts that you saw as a child growing up in Arkansas. Describe the midnight rambles that yours are named after.
HELM: Well, there used to be -one of my favorite traveling tent shows at the time was an outfit called, it was called the F.S. Walcott's Original Rabbits Foot Minstrels. And this was a big four-pole, or five-pole tent that they set up, and they parked two of the big tractor trailer flatbeds side to side to make the stage, put the tent around that. And they had a chorus line, a band, a troupe of singers, dancers and players. And they would put on in these small towns through the South, they would play every week, and you would go to the midnight--you would go to the concert. At the end of the concert, which would be over around 10:30, 11, they would offer a midnight ramble ticket. And for the people who could stay up late, all the kids were supposed to go home and get ready for school or Sunday school, and the grown-ups could stay and buy an extra ticket and get an extra half-hour, 45 minutes of music and spicier jokes. And one of the prettiest girls in the chorus line would do a little hoochie koochie and what a show.
GROSS: Well, there's no like hoochie koochie in your midnight ramble, is there?
HELM: You know, we've...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: We've almost had it break out a couple of times. Amy and Larry Campbell's mom the other night jumped up and started doing a little hoochie koochie.
GROSS: Now, getting back to the midnight rambles, which are kind of like house parties but on a very elevated level, you write in your memoir that your father used to perform weekends at house parties.
HELM: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Did he tell you stories about that, or were you old enough to go to any of them when he was still doing that?
HELM: Well, you know, by the time that I got old enough to go, televisions were just starting to come out, and we didn't get electricity and didn't have one yet. But the trend was started towards couch potato and, you know, just the participation generation was going by the wayside. And I didn't have a chance to play many of those house parties. I got to go to a few. As a young kid, I remember one night they had one at my uncle's house, and my Uncle Pudge, who also played guitar, and I had a big grocery box, pasteboard box, and I beat that thing to death that night. I was the - I volunteered to play percussion. But that was the old, you know, move the furniture out of the biggest room, and a guitar player, a fiddle player and maybe a mandolin player was about the, you know, the strength of the band.
BIANCULLI: Drummer and singer Levon Helm, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. In 2008, Levon Helm took his midnight ramble show to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Here they are with Sheryl Crow as guest vocalist.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVANGELINE")
HELM: (Singing) She stands on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, alone in the pale moonlight waiting for a man, a riverboat gamblers said that he'd return tonight.
LEVON HELM AND SHERYL CROW: (Singing) They used to waltz on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, loving the whole night through 'til the riverboat gambler went off to make a killing And bring it on home to you. Evangeline, Evangeline curses the soul of the Mississippi Queen. That pulled her man away.
BIANCULLI: We'll get back to Terry's interview with the late Levon Helm after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: We're listening back to interviews with and music by drummer and singer Levon Helm who died yesterday at the age of 71. Terry interviewed him in 2007 after the release of his Grammy-winning recording "Dirt Farmer."
GROSS: Let me choose another song from the new CD. This is "Single Girl, Married Girl" which I believe is another song that you grew up with?
HELM: Well, it's just another one of those songs. It's kind of in the same area there. And it gave me, as a drummer, another opportunity to kind of monkey up the beat of a traditional country rhythm.
GROSS: So here it is, from Levon Helm's new CD, "Dirt Farmer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE GIRL, MARRIED GIRL")
HELM: One, two, three (Singing) Well, a single girl.
AMY HELM AND TERESA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Single girl, single girl.
LEVON HELM, AMY HELM AND TERESA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yeah the single girl.
HELM: (Singing) The single girl.
LEVON HELM, AMY HELM AND TERESA WILLIAMS: (Singing) She always dresses so fine.
HELM: (Singing) She dresses so fine.
: (Singing) Oh, she always dresses so fine.
HELM: (Singing) But the married girl.
WILLIAMS: (Singing) Married girl, married girl.
: (Singing) Oh, the married girl.
HELM: (Singing) The married girl. She wears just any old kind. Just any old kind.
: (Singing) Oh, she wears just any old kind.
GROSS: That's "Single Girl, Married Girl" from Levon Helm's new CD, "DirtFarmer." There's such great harmonies on your CD, and your daughter Amy...
GROSS: ...does most of the harmony singing on this.
HELM: Well, that's Amy and Teresa Williams, Larry Campbell's wife, and that's one of the great gifts from "Dirt Farmer" for me is the sound of Amy and Teresa's harmonies. We didn't know before "Dirt Farmer" that they would blend and sound the way they sound together.
GROSS: I've asked this to other performers who have ended up performing with, you know, their children, their adult children. But when your daughter was born, did you ever think, this is my future performing partner. She's just arrived?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: No, I never did. I had - I guess I had the same hopes for Amy that my parents had for me. I wanted Amy to be a scholar. You know, my parents wanted me to be smart and be a scholar, and the best I could do was graduate high school. And, bless her heart, Amy, I've got to say, she did finish school out at Wisconsin and made a beautiful picture of her in her graduating robe. And I'm so proud of her. But the same bug bit Amy that bit me and she fell back in with the rhythm section as soon as she got out of school.
GROSS: Now, you grew up singing with your family. Did you do a lot of tight harmonies at home?
HELM: A little bit. My mother and sister were so good at it that I stood around with my mouth open and listened for the most part.
GROSS: So when you started to sing, if you were singing with your mother - and her sister, did you say?
HELM: My mother and my older sister, uh-huh.
GROSS: Your older sister. So you were used to female harmonies. So when you started doing harmonies with The Band did you have to kind of transpose male and female parts in your mind?
HELM: Well, you know, you try to. It just, you know, depends on how much, you know, athletic ability you've got in your voice. I've always thought it was easier for girls to sing harmonies because their voices can go to that higher plane so much more easy than a male voice. And I'm not sure that they just don't sound sweeter and prettier.
GROSS: Your father was a cotton farmer, but performed on weekends. What kind of songs would he do? The kind of songs you've done on your new CD?
HELM: You know, he would probably have done, you know, things like the up-tempo stuff that we do on "Dirt Farmer," some of those tunes he would have done. And I know one of the old songs--we didn't do it in this recording phase, but that "Sitting on Top of the World" was an old favorite back then. (Singing) Now, don't you come here running, holding out your hand, I've been your daddy, I've been your man. But now I'm gone and I ain't worried, I'm sitting on top of the world.
GROSS: Yeah, and didn't Cream record that tune? Of course, Bob Wills...
HELM: You know, I think they did.
HELM: And I'm sure my dad, you know, jumped the beat up, like Cream did, to make it as danceable as possible.
GROSS: Now, you performed with your sister when you were a teenager...
HELM: Yeah, my baby sister.
GROSS: ...and won a lot of contests.
GROSS: This is your younger sister?
GROSS: OK. And you write in your memoir that, you know, in those performances you would play harmonica, Jews harp, and slap your thighs. Are there ever occasions, musically, that call for thigh slapping now?
HELM: Well, you know, that's the old hambone trick. When I was coming through school, that was one of the things that you wanted to learn how to do, was hambone. And that's, you know, how you slap your hand on your leg and your chest like - I don't know if you can hear it or not but I...
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPPING RHYTHMICALLY)
HELM: Like that. And it was just one of those things that you learned as a kid, you know, in south Arkansas schools, and not knowing how to play guitar or anything that was my first reaction to music.
GROSS: So you were doing that before you had a drum kit.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about you've also been in a few films including "Coal Miner's Daughter" or "The Right Stuff" and most recently, you were in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" which was directed by Tommy Lee Jones who also starred in it. And you have a small but terrific part in it and I want to play that scene. Tommy Lee Jones, in the movie, is going across the desert to bury his friend in the small town that his friend wanted to be buried in.
So he's on this, kind of like, almost epic journey, taking the corpse, like, dragging the corpse to the burial place. And he comes upon you, a blind man, living alone in the middle of nowhere and you make a very unusual request. Here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA")
HELM: (as Old Man with Radio) I'd like to ask you a favor.
TOMMY LEE JONES: (as Pete Perkins) Anything you want.
HELM: (as Old Man with Radio) I wanted to ask you if you can shoot me. My son ain't coming back.
JONES: (as Pete Perkins) Aw, he'll come back.
HELM: (as Old Man with Radio) No. He told me he had cancer and he told me to go back to town with him. But I don't want to go 'cause I've always lived here.
JONES: (as Pete Perkins) Well, we can't do it.
HELM: (as Old Man with Radio) I don't want to offend God by killing myself. It's a problem.
JONES: (as Pete Perkins) We don't want to offend God either.
HELM: (as Old Man with Radio) It'd be the best thing to do. You're good people. You need to go ahead and shoot me.
GROSS: What a great scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HELM: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: What did you do to get into character? You play a blind man who, I think, is probably older than you are. You have scars and everything, you know, around your eyes.
GROSS: So did you just kind of walk in and do it? Or did you, like, prepare?
HELM: No. I'm just one of those guys that goes in and tries to do it. I don't know enough about it to prepare myself. You know, I try and sleep as good as I can and just enjoy it. I enjoyed being with people who do know how to do that stuff, and I've never had anything but a good time around any of those shows that I've had the opportunity to be part of.
DAVID BINACULLI, HOST:
The late drummer and singer, Levon Helm, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. We'll hear the final minutes of their conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BINACULLI: We're listening back to a 2007 interview Terry recorded with drummer and singer Levon Helm, who died yesterday from complications from throat cancer at the age of 71.
GROSS: You know, your new CD is dedicated to your parents and you...
GROSS: ...perform on that CD with your daughter. Are you surprised, now, at the power of blood? And I ask that, knowing that, like, you know, you left Arkansas at a pretty young age and traveling around as a musician, around the world, as you did, with The Band, I would imagine it would be easy to lose track of your family. But family in your early life, and certainly now, is so essential.
I mean, the way you describe it, your daughter helped you survive. She took you to your radiation treatments in New York every week during the duration.
HELM: This is true.
GROSS: She sings with you now.
GROSS: She co-produced the record.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if, like, you know, family ties have a different meaning to you than you thought they would've when you were, say, in your 20s or 30s.
HELM: You know, they are stronger for me now, and I've always appreciated my family and friends, you know, and those ties that bind us together. But it's like my music, this much later and after you've almost got everything taken away from you, once you get that back, boy, it's a joyful life that we've all been given.
And, you know, you can really - you know, when you see a young nephew or a young person in your family that's blood related, and you see them for the first time and they're not old enough to know that they're all related, but you can look into their face and you they look into your eyes and you both know it. You know, we take it for granted. You know, we enjoy that kind of thing without even a big thank you most of the time.
GROSS: I want to close with another song from your new CD and this is a Buddy and Julie Miller song called "Wide River to Cross." Can you talk about why you chose this song and why you chose it to end this CD? Yeah.
HELM: Oh, my. It's just such a great tune and Buddy and Julie Miller are some of the best music makers that we've got, and I just love them for helping me do "Dirt Farmer."
GROSS: Well, it's a beautiful performance. Thank you so much for talking with us and...
HELM: Oh, thank you, Terry, for calling. It's a pleasure. Thank you so much for playing the record.
GROSS: We are really glad you're recording again and performing.
HELM: Oh, me too. Thank you, hon.
GROSS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDE RIVER TO CROSS")
HELM: (Singing) There's a sorrow in the wind blowing down the road I've been. I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun. But I cannot look back now. I've come too far to turn around. And there's still a race ahead that I must run. I'm only halfway home. I've got to journey on. To where I'll find, find the things I've lost.
(Singing) I've come a long, long road but still I've got some miles to go. I've got a wide, a wide river to cross. I have stumbled, I have strayed. You can trace the tracks I've made all across the memories my heart recalls. But I'm still a refugee. Won't you say a prayer for me? 'Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls.
(Singing) I'm only halfway home. I've got to journey on to where I'll find--I'll find the things I've lost. I've come a long, long road but still I've got some miles to go. I've got a wide, a wide river to cross.
BINACULLI: Levon Helm from his 2007 recording "Dirt Farmer" singing with his daughter Amy Helm and Teresa Williams. Levon Helm died yesterday at the age of 71. You can hear the complete 2007 interview and an earlier interview from 1993 on our website freshair.npr.org. And we are grateful for the many years of wonderful music he gave us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.