Musix Newsletter #19 • April 2012
Today is April 19, 2012, and I just heard that Levon Helm, the great drummer, singer, mandolinist with The Band has died. I was a big fan. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of interviewing Levon in early 1983 when his career as a movie actor was in full bloom. We talked about his music and mandolin playing. I found him to be the nicest, most humble and sincere musician I had ever met.
Over the years many of his profound thoughts on music and life have come back to me again and again. One is: “Music don’t owe anybody a living. Just because you play music, it ain’t supposed to make you rich or famous. It’s supposed to be your life, and it’s supposed to help you, and help those you love … if you get a shot, if you get on national television, or if you get a record out that somebody can remember, great. That ought to encourage you not to quit, but it don’t mean a whole lot.”
I never saw him again after the interview but I have re-read my notes and looked at the photos I shot that night of Levon, Rick Danko, and others many times over the years. I recently re-discovered all of the photo negatives I’d shot that night and found some gems that I didn’t know I had. I thought all of you might enjoy reading the interview and seeing the photos, which were originally published in Mandolin World News in the Spring of 1983.
As I collected this material to post on the Musix website, I remembered how much his wonderful voice and music have meant to me over the years. But more than that, I remember his willingness to talk with me, his kindness and sincerity, not to mention all the meaningful nuggets of wisdom he passed on to me during our brief talk. I’m sad that he’s left this world but happy that he left us so much wonderful music.
Introduction to the Mandolin World News interview:
Late one night I turned on the television to David Letterman’s “Late Night” and saw a clean-shaven Levon Helm sitting on a stool and playing his F-4 mandolin. It was a great treat, not only to hear one of my favorite musicians in an all-too-rare musical performance, but also to see the mandolin played on national TV. I’d always loved Levon’s voice with The Band on songs like “The Weight,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia,” and many more. A bearded Levon had often been pictured on album covers with his F-4 or Gibson electric and was credited with “sweetening” (to use his term) the ensemble sound of The Band with his mandolin playing. His presence, at least to my ears, lent a great deal of warmth, humor, and good old down home honesty to The Band. A few weeks after the Letterman show Levon appeared at The Keystone Corner nightclub in San Francisco and I jumped at the chance to interview him.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the show or the interview as I stood, packed like a sardine, in a huge, smoky, rock and roll night club. Levon was scheduled to perform with fellow Band member and bassist Rick Danko in the opening slot for blues rocker Elvin Bishop. I assumed that Helm and Danko would be with an electric group, Levon on drums, Rick on bass. I hoped that they’d do at least a few tunes with the mandolin but with this large and rowdy crowd it didn’t seem feasible. Imagine my surprise when they came out as a duet with acoustic mandolin and guitar!
Their set was a mixture of vintage material from The Band and old country and blues. Levon played mainly mandolin, his F-4 with a pickup, the cord duct taped to the top of the instrument, but did a few turns each on guitar and harmonica. Rick played guitar and both men sang.
The capacity crowd was on its feet from the beginning, swaying to the music and singing along. It was unusual to see punks with mohawks, drunks in T-shirts, business people in suit and tie all sharing the same event led by these two musicians sitting on chairs on a distant stage. There was something powerful emanating from them. I recognized it as the same feeling I’d had watching the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” where Levon played Loretta Lynn’s father. I believed him in the role. This audience believed Helm and Danko and was tamed, without any showbiz jive or hype. They just sat and played and sang and somehow the crowd felt a part of what was coming from the stage. Levon and Rick turned that noisy, hazy cavern into a living room. It was a wonderful show.
When Levon and I finally sat down backstage to talk during Elvin Bishop’s set, that same directness and honesty, mixed with a good dose of humility, shone through more than anything else. I found his approach to the music business, fame, life, and the mandolin to be fascinating and inspiring. He’d just finished work on a film of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” about the early days of the space program. His next film was “The Doll Maker” with Jane Fonda. Levon played the father of “a whole passel of kids and Lord knows we’re trying to get by. Just like everybody else these days.” The film is about the World War II migration of poor southerners to the northern industrial cities.
This particular musical appearance was part of several dates he and Rick were playing between other engagements. Obviously enjoying the duet with his old friend and Band-mate Levon said, “We’re just taking it a day at a time and hoping we can play and sing a little bit better each night.”
Dix Bruce, Winter 1983
The Mandolin World News Interview
Transcribed 2/83 by W. J. Coats.
Dix Bruce: Tell us about your background on the mandolin.
Levon Helm: Well, (laughs) it’s a fairly meager background. I’m really happy that you’ve asked me to be in the magazine, I’m honored, but I’ve got to say right off the front end that I wish I were a mandolin player more deserving of it. I’m OK, you know. I have to treat the mandolin in a little bit of a different way. I treat it more percussively. I don’t really look at myself as a picker, to use that term in that way. I have to use it sort of as I would a snare drum. So, with that all understood, thanks for asking me to be in your magazine.
DB: Sure! When did you start playing the mandolin?
LH: Well, I used to play guitar a bit, and a mandolin, or a string bass if it were handy. And I had the opportunity to see Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys when I was real young, and of course that just tatooed your brain right there. I’ve always loved it; I like the sound of it. And using it the way I’ve used it is more of that snare drum nature. We found that it mingles and mixes good with pianos, and, even though I can’t tune one, it seems to sound okay with a nice piano.
DB: You can’t tune a piano or mandolin?
LH: Oh, my mandolin. I’ve never found one that I can tune. It’s just an ongoing proposition with me. I play a little and tune a little.
DB: I know what you mean. When did you see Bill Monroe?
LH: I think that I might have been maybe five years old, six years old. He came to Marvell, Arkansas, my hometown, and he brought a tent with chairs and a stage, and set the thing up, and of course everybody came. I mean, who would want to miss it? I think I probably pretended I was Bill Monroe after that. That was more fun than Cowboys and Indians for me.
DB: Do you remember if he played baseball?
LH: I’ve heard that story. But I don’t guess he ever got a name up around our area (for baseball). I’ve heard that some of the guys that were helping to drive the trucks and set up the chairs were making as much money as the musicians because they had a real touch with a fastball, you know? But he sure played (music) that night, and I’ve never forgotten it.
DB: So you first heard Bluegrass on the mandolin, then.
LH: Yes. That was my first real taste of my own type of rhythm section, you might say. I really got a good lesson in it that night.
DB: In looking back on it, do you think you relate to that Bill Monroe chop?
LH: God, I hope so.
DB: Being a drummer.
LH: I would like to think that it’s helped me and done me some good. I think I’m probably more apt to get the mandolin mixed up with the snare drum than vice versa, but it’s something to keep in mind. I might have to try it.
DB: When were you born?
LH: I’m born May 26, 1940. In southeast Arkansas, Phillips County. I thank you for these T-shirts. (Mandolin World News logo T-shirts.)
DB: When did you first start playing the mandolin, then?
LH: Well, I’ve always sort of picked at it and chorded at it mainly. I play big block chords if I can reach them, and I try and play as rhythmically…
DB: The chop chords, or the open?
LH: I like them open as much as I can get, so that it’ll ring, and I usually play it more percussively than melodically. That’s the only way I’ve ever approached it, as just as another piece in a rhythm section.
DB: You do play leads sometimes, though? LH: Very rare. If nobody else plays a solo spot, I like to just sort of count along and sweeten the chords. I can go with that.
DB: But you’ll set up a riff sometimes, I’ve noticed.
LH: I like to play a little riff, yeah, a little riff that’ll kind of back up the main body of the song. As far as stepping out and being able to do what I’ve heard people do, I can’t really take that step.
DB: Do you think of yourself as playing a certain kind of? Say, would you call it a bluegrass, or …
LH: Well, no, I’m not as pure a singer as it would take to sing good Bluegrass. I’d have to call Ricky Skaggs, or someone with a real pure voice, as I call it. I’m just real Country. I’m just a Country Rock ’n’ Roller. I grew up with the advantage of having heard that type of music. Sonny Boy Williamson was from my home town, so …
DB: He didn’t do much work on the mandolin, though, did he?
LB: Not a whole lot, but you know the harmonica is that kind of an instrument too, and it has that sacred harp ring to it that you get from a mandolin. I guess it all goes back maybe to a pentatonic scale. But it’s one of those instruments that has that real spiritual sound to it.
DB: Your playing has a lot of the Blues in it, in the kinds of riffs and rhythms that you’re setting up.
LH: Yeah, well that’s from being from Marvell. That’s Southeast Arkansas, and Country music down there is a little more rhythmical, closer to the Louisiana Hayride style of Country music.
DB: Who are some other singers or mandolin players that influenced you?
LH: Well, I used to really enjoy Mac Wiseman as a singer, and he had a great, always had a great band. And, I don’t know, Muddy Waters, another mandolin player, Lonzo and Oscar of course were always grand champions in my book.
DB: How about Homer and Jethro?
LH: Homer and Jethro, I guess they’re about as high as you can take it. And Flatt and Scruggs, I’ve always loved that influence, that flavor of Country music.
DB: How did you get from that stuff to what you’ve done with The Band. How does the continuum fit together?
LH: Well, I don’t know. I just hope that it all helps me play better, you know? If I can just try and play to that tradition and to that standard… I can only play like I play, and I wish it were better, and I’m working on it all the time. But I’ll just play whatever brand of Country Music they’re calling it these days. They used to call us Rockabillies, and Hillbillies, and… I don’t know. It’s definitely a working man’s kind of Country music, I think.
DB: How would you classify the music you played with The Band?
LH: I don’t know, I think I’m kind of Blue Collar Rock. Blue Collar Rock ’n’ Roll.
DB: Which is sort of a little of everything, then.
LH: I hope so. All-American.
DB: When you first started out, what kind of a mandolin were you playing?
LH: Well, I used to have a little Martin acoustic, and I’ve had a couple of the Dobro-style mandolins, the silver bodies, and I’ve had a Gibson electric, a solid-body electric.
DB: One of those four-string ones?
LH: No, this one had double stringing. It had a couple of pickups on it, and a couple of different controls—not a bad sound—but I’ve got this old F-4, I guess it is, the oval hole, and I’ve got a little pickup mounted underneath the pickguard so that it rests against the body of the mandolin. (See photo.) It ties to the pickguard. And I can plug that into an amplifier and get a fairly clean acoustical sound with it.
DB: What kind of a pickup is it?
LH: I don’t know. It’s just your standard kind of little contact microphone pickup, and it’s taped under there in a real down-home way. And there’s a place to put a plug into an amp, there, with just a volume knob, one knob.
DB: When you play it live with a full band, do you have problems hearing yourself, or being heard?
LH: Sometimes. I would get cautious about sending my F-4 off to meet me at the job, and I would usually try and carry that Gibson electric. You wouldn’t have any possibility of a feedback, it wouldn’t whistle—that can be a little aggravating—and you can turn it up and really get some results out of it. So I enjoyed it for that, for playing with a full Rock ’n’ Roll rhythm section, with bass, electric bass, and drums, and so forth.
DB: Did you ever use it plugged in in the studio?
LH: Yeah. We’ve done it with a combination of direct, and then some coming through the amp. I like the sound of a four-string Fender, too. That’s a good sound. A lot of people probably remember when Roy Orbison first came out of Texas with the Teen Kings, and he had an electric mandolin in the band. And he had drums, had a doghouse bass, and had himself playing guitar, and he had, I think, a Martin flatpicker. Boy, it was just a great Country sound, with a lot of good bottom to it. He had a hit record called “Oobie-Doobie.”
DB: Are you pretty satisfied with the sound system on the mandolin here?
LH: Well, for this particular situation, just playing alone with Rick (Danko of The Band) and myself, yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. I can hear it. It’s bright enough, and it’s full enough.
DB: Are the two of you touring much?
LH: No, we’re just playing a few shows, and we’re going back to the East Coast after this. We take it a day at a time.
DB: It sounds like you’re having such a good time. (How do you deal with it when you maybe don’t feel like it?) Sometimes you’ve gotta play.
LH: Yeah, especially if you’re sick, if you’ve got a bad cold, and your nose is driving you crazy, and you can’t…, you’re hoarse, and a lot of times I get blisters, you know, more often playing drums, you blister your toes up and so on. And if I don’t play, or if I forget and take (time) off, and kind of start sleeping too late, your fingers get soft. But, you know, one day at a time is the only way to have it, I think.
DB: You guys toured pretty mercilessly for years, right? (This is a reference to the interviews with Martin Scorsese in the film The Last Waltz.)
LH: Well, not a whole lot. I’ve always tried to tour, you know, just to keep myself active. I believe you can only play first chair through experience. And if anybody could achieve that Bill Monroe, Homer and Jethro, Flatt and Scruggs, B. B. King, Little Walter, Ray Charles kind of a status of musicianship, the only way they got there, I think, was staying so long, you know? And of course they were great from the front end, but it’s just a kind of a tradition, and a standard to play to.
DB: So you must love to perform.
LH: I really do. Sometimes, like when you’re sick, you don’t feel good. But if you can keep your concentration right, music is going to make you feel good. It’s going to cure it. Whatever’s wrong with you, it’s just going to help more than not playing. And when you’re sick and when you don’t feel good, that’s when you’ve really got to work on your concentration. I’ll bet all the people that we like so much went through it a thousand times, so, hell, why should we whine about it?
DB: Being a guy who plays a lot of instruments…
LB: Wait a minute—I wish this were exactly true, but…
DB: Well, drums, harmonica, mandolin, guitar…
LH: Yeah, well, let’s just keep it in perspective. I need help.
DB: What do you think of yourself primarily as?
LH: I like to think of myself as one of the musicians. D
B: Rather than a drummer, or a mandolinist, or…
LH: If I can get an opportunity to switch around a bit, and really add to it and help it build, I don’t care, just as long as I get to play. If I’m a member of the rhythm section, I like to switch it around.
DB: When you were learning or when you play now, do you play fiddle tunes or anything at all like that? Or were you just sitting around, just picking by yourself?
LH: Sometimes when we’re just sitting around, like Rick’ll come by, and we’ll have the bar going, and it will be the time of evening or something (and) I just want to hear a “Kentucky Waltz.” And I’ll just sing it, you know, and while I’m singing it I can imagine a full orchestra playing it, and singing it with me, so I enjoy it. We don’t do a lot of that stuff when we’re playing for the public. We kind of try and play with what’s going to be a good time for them, and sometimes we can get one in, and sometimes we can’t. But we do enjoy the old standards.
DB: Well, you wrote a bunch of them. (Songs from The Band.)
LH: Well, no, I’ve not written a lot. I’m mainly a player. I wish I were a writer. I’ve been there when Robby and when Richard and Garth and people have done some good writing, and I’ve got to be a part of it, but I’m just your basic member of the rhythm section.
DB: Oh, you’re too modest.
LH: No, this is the way it is. And I like it just like that.
DB: You mentioned the idea of the mandolin fitting into a rhythm section. What is it about the sound of it that makes it work?
LH: It just fits, you know? It’s in that snare drum register, right in there carrying the backbeat. And if you were playing traditional bluegrass, it would be in its place, and the bass would be in its place, and you’d have the guitar tying the two together, and then you’d have the violin on top of that, playing your long notes, and making the whole thing sing. Hopefully you’d have a banjo player in there backing the whole thing up, and answering everybody. So, if I play, the way that we play it, the more of a Rock ’n’ Roll style of Country music that we would play, the snare drum would play the backbeat, so the mandolin would tie the snare drum and the sock cymbals together and bring all of that into pitch, hopefully. One way that it could work. And, if not exactly that way, it would set up and tie the bass drum and the snare and the Fender bass. It just thickens up the rhythm section. It gives, if it’s playing the same pattern the same riff as a guitar, it puts a nice high tenor, almost alto step to the riff or to the pattern. It’s fun for me to try and play it that way just as a part of a rhythm section, and double the guitar riff, or double the piano riff, or set up the backbeat. Something will work, hopefully.
DB: I noticed that you used mostly those open chords, too, when you were up there tonight. Ringing chords.
LH: I wish I could play in the Homer and Jethro tradition, but my best chance is to get it in that open, ringing key. And if we had to do a lot in F, you know, I’d probably want to go back over and play drums. But it sure is a lot of fun for me when I can play those open chords, and play it rhythmically, and just thicken the body of the groove.
DB: When I interview somebody, I like to try to talk to them about advice that they could give people.
LH: About the mandolin, if you put it into the rhythm section the way that I can use it, it puts a nice pitch into the whole rhythm. It draws it into a better pitch, and it gives you a better base to sing off of.
DB Better than a drum?
LH: Oh, of course. You know, if you’ve got that there, it just widens out the chord and makes the chord a stronger base. You’ve got more of a chance to sing on pitch.
DB: How do you view yourself, as a kid who grew up in a small town in Arkansas and became a big Rock star, and now, a big movie star? (Levon was a featured actor in films Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff.) How do you keep it in perspective?
LH: Well, you know, I’ve had some luck along the way I’ve played for a long time, and by being part of a team in a few different situations. And I’ve had a touch of fame and fortune, popularity, whatever you want to call it. But all I can do about it is come out here and play for the people. And if I can just be that transmitter, between the people and what we all want, then I’ve done my job and I feel fine about it. Hell, it’s no need of letting it overtake us. Wall Street may bust, blow up tomorrow, and if it does, music is the only thing that’s going to help any of us.
LH: Our families, our friends, and some music; and some good times, some fellowship, some breaking of bread with each other, and some sharing of good and hard times. And I’m just going to show up, right here in San Francisco, and try and make sure that all of us here tonight, I’m going to help Elvin (Bishop. Levon and Rick Danko had opened the show for Bishop), and we’re going to make sure that everybody has a good time. So, music can put us through it. If we all get the right group together, we’ll just march on through this damn thing.
DB: I sure hope so.
LH: And you know, playing-wise, music don’t owe anybody a living. Just because you play music, it ain’t supposed to make you rich or famous. It’s supposed to be your life, and it’s supposed to help you, and help those you love, and you’re supposed to play it, really try. And if you get a shot, if you get on national television, or if you get a record out that somebody can remember, great. That ought to encourage you not to quit, but it don’t mean a whole lot. You know, that was day before yesterday, and if that’s the best that any of us can do, it ain’t going to count for long. So, in case we can’t do any better, at least we can show up and have a good time.
DB: Did you feel when you were younger, in those days before there was any money, before there was any fame?
LH: Well, it’s never really bothered me. I like it a lot better when people think it’s hot, or whatever you want to call it. I just want to try and sing it better tomorrow than I did tonight. And maybe some time or other they’ll put it on television or records again. And if they don’t, to hell with that. You know, that ain’t what I’m after anyway. I would rather have them pay attention, and think it’s great, but, you know, there’s no need of quitting when they don’t.
DB: And, I guess, no need of getting excited when they do, either.
LH: Well, you know, it’s a long way up, and it’s a long way down. If we can just kind of swim along through the middle…
DB: You’ve said a lot about hope: you hope you get better, and that seems to be one of the main things that you’re interested in.
LH: Yeah, well, I appreciate… It’s flattering to be interviewed and everything, but really, you’ve got to keep it in perspective. Everybody’s got to improve. If I can play a better show tomorrow night, then I’m doing my job. And I’m keeping myself prepared to get better. So, it’s that simple.
DB: How do you feel about that, say on the mandolin? How do you improve your playing on the mandolin?
LH: Well, I can just get so I don’t have to look at my fingers. I’ve got a bunch of things to do. Maybe I’ll learn to play in F eventually. (At this point in the interview Levon and Rick were called back onstage to play an encore with Elvin Bishop.)
LH: Well, do me a favor: Edit this down so that it looks good, huh?