The Band

Audio files
Video clips
Tape archive
Related artists
Chat Room
What's New?

The Ties That Bind - liner notes

by Terry Reilly

Below are the OCR-scanned liner notes from the "best of Levon Helm" compilation The Ties That Bind. They were written by Terry Reilly in 1998. The liner notes are copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

"I'd stare at the drummer all night because with those horns and that full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house. The sound of the cymbals and the snare drum popping was synonymous in my mind with Saturday night and good times. F.S. Walcott had a fantastic left-handed drummer, who I studied closely as I could from my seat. This was a problem in those days of segregation, because the audience was split down the middle by an aisle. On the left were the black to light skinned folks, while the light-skinned people with the red hair sat on the right. The left-handed drummer sat on my right, which put his tom-toms between me and him. So he's working the snare drums in front of him, favouring the band, and as he's getting ready to roll he's coming right around toward me. I'm sitting two rows back at the most. I'm probably in the front row, in fact, studying what he's doing for the whole two-hour show. I'm naturally right-handed, but people have always told me that I play left-handed. I have a technique, that's where it comes from "
(Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, from This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band)

Mark Lavon Helm from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas was only about seven years of age in 1947 when the F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels rolled into Marvell, Arkansas on a steamy Saturday night and performed for the local country folk in makeshift tents. Posters were slapped on walls and lamp-posts weeks before the Walcott troupe (immortalised in the Band's W.S. Walcott Medicine Show) hit town and played to over-spilling canvas auditoriums. The same pre-concert ritual applied to the likes of Silas Green's crack, 12-piece orchestra from New Orleans, Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys (featuring Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs). And radio out of Shreveport and Memphis played more of this pre-electric blues and country music.

As for Turkey Scratch, a speck on the map of Arkansas, Levon Helm is justifiably proud. "It was a poor place, y'know, a strictIy farming place with rice and cotton and everybody working hard but a lotta good times and a lotta people on the street and a lotta music. As far as growing up I couldn't have had a better place for music."

Like his father before him, Jasper Diamond Helm, young Mark would he known (with a slight amendment) by his middle name. Diamond Helm was a dirt poor Arkansas farmer by day and a country musician on weekends, he played guitar. But his son, who performed the duties of water boy on the family farm in century-degree heat, remembers the singular most defining moment that inspired his interest in music. It was a moment that preceded all of those Saturday nights and good times. The year was 1946, the place, Marvell, and the inspirational entertainment came from Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys. They had left so large an impression that Levon overlooked the usual games of childhood. A year short of the age of reason, he grabbed an old broom handle and played 'guitar' in and around the barn and in the watermelon patch days and weeks after Monroe had moved on to other towns,

But something bigger than a polite genuflection in the direction Of Music was happening in the South in the mid-forties. Levon Helm, who survived the climatic extremes of cold, wet winters, long hot summers and destructive tornadoes caused by the impact of the Mississippi Valley breezes from the Gulf of Mexico and the westerly winds from 0klahoma and Kansas, bore witness to something just as extreme - the drawn-out birth of rock'n'roll. it virtually unfolded before him.

When Elvis Presley made rock'n'roll official in January, 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel, Levon Helm was making a sound so hot with the Jungle Bush Beaters in Marvell and Helena you could fry an overcrowded country cheeseburger on it. In fact, Helena also served as an inspirational catalyst a few years before the Bush Beaters. Unlike many other would-be rock'n'rollers of the time, Levon didn't have to sneak into an adult nightclub after hours, Why, should he when a radio station, KFFA in Helena, gave him the best fifteen minutes entertainment at lunch time.

Young Levon sat directly in front of one of the earthiest blues bands in the world - drummer Peck Curtis, pianists Willie Love, Pinetop Perkins and Dudlow Taylor, guitarists Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse. The band leader was Rice Miller, the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson II. The historical King Biscuit Time featuring harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson live, was a ritual the farm boy indulged himself in regularly. Nourished by his daily snack of three doughnuts for a quarter, Levon saw blues history evolve. This was, once again, the best seat in the house.

Before long, Levon teamed up with rockabilly cat, Ronnie Hawkins, first as a member of the Ron Hawkins Quartet, who recorded Hey Bo Diddley in 1958, and then as a mainstay of the Hawks, who were signed to Roulette. Popular in Toronto, the band was domiciled there and gradually, in 1960, a trio of teenaged musicians from three small Ontario towns - Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson - and Robbie Robertson from Toronto, replaced the other homesick Arkansawyers.

They played hard and lived accordingly. It was here that Levon Helm took to the best seat in the house again, taking to the drums after conceding defeat on the guitar. They played blistering rockabilly, almost a decade after that ground breaking, music lost its impact. If that means the Hawks were not only the second-wave but second-rate rockabilly performers, Carl Perkins, no slouch himself in that field, puts the record straight. "I'm standing behind the stage listening to these guys - they were strong. They were as good as any rockabillv players anywhere" (1997). Perkins would know. He was at Sun when it all happened.

When the tyrannical Hawkins and the rest of the crew split in 1964, Levon assumed leadership of the band which became known as Levon and the Hawks or occasionally with some added players, namely Jerry Penfound (sax) and Brian Bruno (vocals) - the Levon Helm Sextet. Levon, in can-do mode, dominated that drum seat but also took on the lead vocals, made the fraternity house bookings, and was the official MC. The shows were popular but the singles on Atco in 1965 did little for them. He Don't Love You, Go Go Liza Jane and The Stones That I Throw were not truly indicative of their style except for the latter. According to the Band's biographer, Barney Hoskyns, it had the merit of presaging the sound of The Band, with Garth's Lowery organ swirling around Richard's vocal.

Fascinated with the South, the band of five Huckleberry Finns, always called "the band" in conversation would join Bob Dylan on the road in 1965 and 1966. But while while the controversy of Dylan going electric and betraying the prudish ideology of folk for rock'n'roll blazed away, the four Canadians and one American were forging a sound of their own in an old house called Big Pink, in West Saugerties New York. Levon who had left the Hawks in 1965 before a global Bob Dylan tour (to be replaced by Mickey Jones) rejoined them during these sessions and provided the spirited Don't Ya Tell Henry with what would become his virile, trademark vocal. The Basement Tapes were recorded in 1967, but not released officially until 1975. (The later live version of the song in this collection was recorded at the largest outdoor festival in music history at Watkins Glen, where the Band, the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead played to over 600,000 people).

During this period with Dylan, Robertson assumed a more dominant role in the band. Dylan and the 'mathematical guitar genius' certainly clicked. So too did Dylan with Levon & the Hawks, with Time magazine later describing their union as the most decisive moment in rock history, Perhaps the break in Dylan's neck from a motorcvcle accident at this time was a break of sorts for the Band who had the time to develop a clubhouse approach to recording their own music in Woodstock while Dylan recuperated.

The Band, who basically believed in old-fashioned family (Southern) values and eschewed the popular parent-hating hype of middle-American youth, forged an interesting career from The Music From Big Pink (1968) to the release of the final concert, The Last Waltz in 1978. It was an interesting career because the music which had a Southern ring to it was neither wholly country rock nor the ephemeral swamp rock by which it was sometimes called. So much of it, created by Robbie Robertson, was written "for" Levon Helm to perform. Most notable was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (replete with Levon's military use of the snares and the distant bass drum patterns giving the song both a quasi-spiritual and historical feel) and the shared verses in The Weight and Acadian Driftwood.

As early as January 12, 1970, in Time magazine, Robbie Roberstson made a telling comment about the amalgam of country and blues in relation to Levon's father, Diamond. "Country music was played by white people and blues was played by black people. And when it interchanged, it became something else, which is what Levon's father sings like. He sings blues with a twang, with that different bump on a different place." The description of Diamond's voice might also apply to Levon Helm in the period after 1978 when the Band disbanded. Or to put it correctly, when Robbie Robertson parted company. The group kept touring and would later become a sextet in 1992 after pianist Richard Manuel's suicide on the road in 1986.

When Levon, who could switch from drums to mandolin to guitar, indulged himself in his own projects he paid more than lip-service to versatility. The enormous crowds of the past were no longer a reality but the occasional solo album, film parts, a role as a documentary narrator and a tutorial video kept unemployment at bay.

As for his solo career, what would a Levon Helm album sound like? His musical infrastructure was primarily blues and country. For Levon Helm and The RCO All Stars (1977) it was blues. The voice had Diamond's hand-me-down trademark twang. In fact, and not suprisingly, the twang imbued Levon's voice on Band and non-Band recordings. Perhaps his 'twangiest' offering is found on the recent video, The Band: The Unauthorized Video Biography where he plays acoustic blues by an open-fire in the closing sequence. Call it Lightnin' Hopkins Texas country blues married to Arkansas/Delta blues. Not far behind it, however is the pleading Lucrecia which would have suited the Band's Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1975). In fact, the whole Levon Helm album, which includes the Johnny Otis chestnut, Willie and the Hand Jive and the solemn Even A Fool Would Let Go - almost a cousin of the The River Hymn from the Band's Cahoots - finds Levon really favouring a kind of backwoods country vocal high in the mix.

Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, the album which featured the talents of Booker T. & the MGs, Dr John, Paul Butterfield, old Hawks pal Fred Carter Jnr. and an LA horn section, provided a vision - not for Levon Helm so much because he did not use this pungently clear R&B sound again - but for the Blues Brothers who were about to make their mark as a cult act in movies and music. Listen to Milk Cow Boogie and ponder its appropriate place in Briefcase Full of Blues or The Blues Brothers movie soundtrack. The only song written by Levon was the catchy ballad Blues So Bad. The voice was Levon Helm but the tighter less-textured sound owed little to the Band of old, much to the disappointment of Band fans, Despite constant touring and promotion, the album partly recorded at Shangri La and his RCO Studios in Woodstock reached only as high as #142 on the American charts. The somewhat understated The Tie That Binds, Milk Cow Boogie, You Got Me and Sing Sing Sing (with Robertson and Hudson assisting) harken back to the good-time R&B and Saturday nights feel of the past.

Stax Records Donald 'Duck' Dunn was duly proud of Levon Helm's second solo effort, Levon Helm for ABC. Dunn, bassist with the MGs, whose previous productions for Stax, in Memphis were mainly co-productions, was disappointed that ABC did not use his services again. And although the album did not chart it oozed a certain Southern charm (part of it was recorded at Muscle Shoals) and is the only Helm album to occasionally court the ambience of previous Band projects. Levon's cousin Terry Cagle was the drummer for the Cate Brothers, a square-jawed, Arkansas, blue-eyed soul act. The duo's rivetting soul ballad, Slanding on a Mountain Top was the centrepiece of this second album. This was the closest that Band aficionados would ever hear to the old sound. It's R&B, as attested by Al Green's stunning Take Me to the River. Allen Toussaint's jaunty New Orleans gem, Play Something Sweet (also known as Junkyard Blues and Brickyard Blues), exuded a warmer sound than the RCO All Stars staccato delivery of blues and funk.

During this rather intense period of post-Band recordings, Levon turned his hand to acting, something for which he had a natural penchant. Throughout the eighties he was involved in The Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), The Right Stuff (1983), Smooth Talk (1986), Man Outside (1988), with cameo appearances by Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel. End of the Line (1988) and Staying Together (1989). Not all were highly acclaimed but his performance in the first mentioned alongside Sissy Spacek (as Loretta Lynn) was strong enough to earn him a regular pattern of roles throughout the decade while he was making smaller but demanding whistle-stop tours with the Band.

But a slightly bigger project fermented at the legendary Bradley Barn's studio in Nashville, in 1980. Levon Helm and original Hawks guitarist, Fred Carter, Jnr, recorded Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky for the soundtrack of Coal Miner's Daughter. It was intended to be a one-off session.The song stirred something in Levon and within two weeks 20 more songs were recorded. Some of them such as the highly metaphorical Hurricane - note the drum patterns that sound like they w ere lifted from The Band, the group's second album -were placed on what is considered his finest solo album, American Son. The sure-footed rhythms of Watermelon Time in Georgia were not Levon's but drum chores shared by stalwarts Kenneth Buttrev, Jerry Carrigan and Buster Phillips.

It is a measure of the man's respect in the music business that a number of projects involve Levon Helm. In 1980, songwriter, Paul Kennerley invited Levon, along with Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell and Charlie Daniels to be major players on the concept album, The Legend of Jesse James. It was a brave project which saw Levon play the role of Jesse James while Cash played Frank James. Kennerly would later write When I Get My Rewards for Levon to sing on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken II.

Signing to Capitol in 1982, Levon recorded the other eponymous Levon Helm album. This Muscle Shoals offering showing Levon picking an acoustic guitar on the back sleeve featured red the bouncy Lucrecia with an engaging chorus ideal for the three part harmonies of the Band. Even A Fool would let go was pretty much a departure for Levon, with that magnificently unique voice soaking up the forlorn sentiments of the lyrics. A clean stab at the Johnny Otis classic Willie and the Hand Jive saw Levon completely at home on its funky R&B virtues.

The solo albums stopped but touring with the Band, playing a series of small venues didn't. Nor did the album appearances including Ring Starr's All Star Band in 1989 from which this version of The Weight is taken - the lead vocals by Levon and Rick Danko complemented by a verse from New Orleans icon, Dr. John. Levon had played mandolin on two Starr albums before he joined his ‘big band'. But then, in an active session career, he has also appeared on recordings by Eric Clayton, John Hammond, Jesse Winchester, David Blue, Kinky Friedman, Neil Young, the Cate Brothers, Jackie Looms, Martin Mull, Muddy Waters, the Butterfield Blues Band, Rick Danko, Crossly & Nash, Michelle Shocked and Los Lobos, among others.

In 1993, the latest configuration of the Band put out the powerful Jericho, after performing at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan. (Part of the backing band included MGs Booker T., Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper.) Rick Danko and Levon share the vocal chores and the sound is in line with the Band of old. Levon's unmistakable timeworn tenor drives the title song but it is the contrast with Danko that brings a certain enthusiasm into his voice, a highlight of Springsteen's Atlantic City and Bruce Channel's Stand Up from the second 'reunion' album, High on the Hog. Oddly, on the haunting the Caves of Jericho, Levon superbly takes on the entire lead vocal work even though tile structure and tone lends itself to verse sharing with Danko.

Perhaps it is simply an indicator that Levon's most distinctive vocal work occurs on recordings by the Band. Arkansas twang or not, Levon Helm's voice served a very interesting purpose in the Band, which did not Aiwa's function appropriately on all of his solo recordings. The Band used the three voices of Helm, Danko and Manuel for poetic effect. Poetic effect because each singer's timbre provided a slightly different mood on, for example, Acadian Driftwood, The Weight and King Harvest (Has Surely Come). This function matched the voices heard in some of the most effective poetry; such is T.S. Eliott's The WasteLand. It is a function brought superbly back to life

On the Band's recent version of Atlantic City. These later recordings exude a stronger sense of self when compared with the measured stomp rhythms of Living in a Dream the closing song of the (original) Band's final studio album, Islands (1976).

You can be forgiven for thinking that Levon Helm has slowed down but the opposite is really the case. The films, apart from Fire Down Below, may have diminished but a drum video, Levon Helm
on Drums and Drumming,
dealing with styles and techniques, is available on Homespun Video. One of the most engaging documentaries on Elvis Presley, 1987's Elvis '56. A Tribute to the King - which marked the tenth anniversary of Presley's death - featured his most appropriate but understated Southern narration, giving the documentary an air of authenticity. In 1993 he guested on avowed admirer John Martyn's No Little Boy album, duetting on Utah Phillip's gritty Rock Salt & Nails and continuing an association begun when he drummed on the folkish British singer's 1970 Woodstock-recorded Stormbringer album.

And while the Band was only just conceptualising ideas for its third album since The Last Waltz Jubilation - who should kick off the first hour of the five-hour documentary series on American highways entitled Revisited Highway 61 but Levon Helm himself. Released in the United States in 1996, the video travels to his significant childhood haunts and takes in Beale Street, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Robert Johnson's grave, and Muddy Waters' cabin.

Musicians of the calibre of Levon Helm seldom rest. For him, the First Annual Midnight Ramble in 1997 aboard the Memphis Showboat, a riverboat on the Mississippi, with blues legend James Cotton

Backed by the Cate Brothers is his idea of musical bliss. As much a favourite as this blues experience are the Band-associated gigs with his makeshift Woodstock band, Cromatix, made up of new Band member Randy Ciarlante, Jimmy Epping, Mike Dunn and recent Band producer and keyboardist, Aaron Hurwitz, with vocalist Marie Spinosa. After a spell at the microphone, Levon returns to that favourite seat and rattles his traps.

The Ties that Bind 1975-1993 is a testimony to the talents of Levon Helm. While the broad scope of his natural abilities in musicianship, acting and narration cannot be squeezed into this album; his unique experiences in observing and playing alongside some of the greatest names in American music are reflected in this selection of tracks. With or without The Band, that trademark voice is an instrument of timeless capacity. His idea of musical bliss, As much a favourite as this blues experience are the Band-associated gigs with his makeshift Woodstock hand, Cromatix, made tip of new Band members Randy Ciarlante, Jimmy Epping, Mike Dunn and recent Band producer and keyboardist, Aaron Hurwitz with vocalist Marie Spinosa. After a spell at the microphone, Levon returns to that favourite seat and rattles his traps.

The Ties That Bind 1975-1993 is a testimony to the talents of Levon Helm. While the broad scope of his natural abilities in musicianship, acting and narration cannot be squeezed into this album; his unique experiences in observing and playing alongside some of the greatest names in American music are reflected in this selection of tracks. With or without the Band, that trademark voice is an instrument of timeless capacity.


[History] [Members] [Library] [Discography] [Videography] [Filmography] [Pictures] [Audio Files] [Video Clips] [Tape Archive] [Concerts] [Related Artists] [Merchandise] [Guestbook] [Chat Room] [Search] [What's New?] [Main Page]