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The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971

Levon Helm: Ramble at the Ryman

The Band: Three of a Kind

Robbie Robertson: How to Become Clairvoyant

Garth Hudson Presents a Canadian Celebration of The Band

Levon Helm: Electric Dirt

Garth and Maud Hudson: Live at the Wolf

Pulse

Dirt Farmer

Elliot Landy's Woodstock Vision

Comeback Kid

After a Year When the Music Came Back


Transcript from the TV program ABC Nightline December 30, 2005. Video clip also available.

Copied from levonhelm.com. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.


CYNTHIA MCFADDEN (ABC NEWS)

Now to a comeback story about a music legend who's finally making music again. Levon Helm is best known as one of the greatest drummers from the 1970s rock scene. But this farm boy from Arkansas has worn many hats in his long career, from banjo player to songwriter, singer, actor, producer, even studio owner. His recent years, though, have seen terrible struggle and then rebound. ?Nightline's? Vicki Mabry met Levon Helm after a year when the music came back.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Drive down the back roads of Woodstock, New York, and you might hear a voice that will take you back in time.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

The voice is raspy now, but after all he's gone through, it's a miracle it's there at all. And it doesn't take much coaxing to get rock 'n' roll legend Levon Helm to invite you into his home and play you a tune.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

What does music mean to you?

LEVON HELM

Music is the language of heaven. That's what Emerson taught us. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was playing music. I would grab an old broom and, you know, pretend that I was singing and playing.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Did you think music was your way out of Arkansas?

LEVON HELM

I sure did. I was praying that it was.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Were you?

LEVON HELM

Yeah. Because I was a terrible cotton farmer. You know, I was a pretty good tractor driver. But I just didn't have the heart for it. And, you know, I would look up and see a plane going across and wonder if it was going to New York or somewhere.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Levon was out of Arkansas by the time he was 17 playing with a group called the Hawks. He and the musicians moved to Woodstock in the late '60s to back up Bob Dylan, and on their own became simply The Band, reaching fame with songs like "The Weight.? But at the peak of their success, The Band called it quits. Director Martin Scorsese turned their final concert in 1976 into the rock documentary "The Last Waltz.? There's Levon, in what he calls the best seat in the house, performing one of their signature songs "Up on Cripple Creek.?

LEVON HELM

The Band never really had a chance. The Band was so surrounded by mismanagement and unethical behavior on different parts, that the Band only lasted as long as it did, about three records' worth of time and it sort of got killed off.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

What did you do in all those years between the end of the Band and now? LEVON HELM Well, I did the same thing I've always done. You know, people just don't pay a lot of attention to it at the time.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

You were city playing? You were still singing?

LEVON HELM

I was still playing, you know, probably learning, you know, some of my best lessons through those years.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

What were the lessons?

LEVON HELM

Just to stay serious with music and don't give up and keep learning. Keep, keep becoming a better player.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

But the music went silent in 1997 when Lee, as friends call him, was diagnosed with throat cancer. For a while, it seemed he might never speak again, let alone sing. A longtime smoker, he lost his greatest love.

LEVON HELM

I had 28 radiation treatments after surgery for a couple of years. I had to whisper and write notes.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

To have been singing all those years, what was it like to lose your voice for that time?

LEVON HELM

Because I don't read or write music a whole lot, you explain yourself verbally, ?dah-dah-dah,? and you can't do that anymore. I still had my drums to beat on, so that kind of saved my bacon.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Levon never stopped trying to find his voice, working to get those sweet harmonies back again. Now eight years later, with his cancer in remission, he's singing out. This fall, he debuted his new sound at his home in Woodstock at something called the Midnight Ramble.

LEVON HELM

The old tent shows that used to come to town always had a midnight ramble at the end of the night. And that was the spiciest part of the night, you know, you could usually get a little hoochie-koochie dance out of one of the members of the chorus line. Nobody wanted to go home after all that good music. So we sort of named this music party after the midnight ramble.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Now he opens his barn each month to some musical friends, including his daughter Amy and Emmylou Harris. And for $100, fans can watch them rock the rafters.

LEVON HELM

We try and not have a set show. We know we got to play for an hour or two, so just, you know, figure out what you want to do for the first song and go out there and just kind of let it happen. Because it's a ramble, if we make a mistake, we can stop and start over again, which happens frequently. And people are free to come and go and sit in and participate. If something sounds good, they can participate with it.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

What's it like to have 100 strangers coming in to your home for one of your rambles?

LEVON HELM

They don't feel like strangers. They feel like friends and relatives and we're all here for the same thing, to have a good time and celebrate music.

VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS)

Is it fair to say this has been somewhat of a comeback year for you?

LEVON HELM

It certainly has. Certainly has. I can sing my share of the songs for the first time in a long time and not be quite as scared as I was. I didn't have any plans on even being here, much less being able to try and sing some harmonies with everybody so, it's a wonderful life.

CYNTHIA MCFADDEN (ABC NEWS)

You can also catch Levon Helm in the new Tommy Lee Jones' movie, ?The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,? in theaters in early February.


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