For her 1996 book Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man, author Sandra Tooze interviewed Levon Helm, the singer-drummer with the iconic Canadian-American roots-rock group The Band. He was generous with her, which left a deep impression. When it came time to write another book, she decided it would need to be about someone she respected as much as Helm. Then it struck her: Why not a biography on him?
“He was so nice to me, and he didn’t know me from anybody,” says Tooze, a retired Penguin Random House editor. “It was like talking to an old friend. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he made everybody feel that way.”
Her new book, published by Diversion Books, is Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond, a rich examination of a distinctly Southern man. The author spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Victoria.
In your book, when talking about Levon’s upbringing in rural Arkansas, you get into race issues right off the bat. Why?
I think with anyone who grows up in the South, it’s an integral part of their life. Especially back then in the 1940s. But as I also say in the book, Levon was raised not to be racist. His mother Nell made sure of that. Levon maintained close friendships with Black people throughout his whole life.
He was, as you write, a son of sharecroppers. There’s the line in The Band’s song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, “Like my father before me, I will work the land.”
Yes. Sharecropping was a remnant of the antebellum South. It was a system created to keep Black people and poor, white Southerners tied to the land. It kept the families poor.
That song was in the news recently when Alabama singer-songwriter Early James changed the lyrics because of the song’s supposed Confederate mythology. What do you think Levon would have thought about that?
Levon had great pride in his Southern heritage. But it had nothing to do with pre-Civil War values. Looking at the lyrics of the song, I don’t hear anything in it, frankly, that celebrates what the antebellum South stood for.
The criticism is that it represents nostalgia for a lost cause.
I see it more as a cry of despair from a poor person about the devastation of war. I don’t understand why Early James felt he had to change the lyrics. Robbie Robertson wrote the lyrics, and he’s certainly not a racist.
One of the things that struck me about your book is not only the appreciation of Levon’s drumming, but the analysis of it. Are you a drummer?
Right from the start when I began my research, it became glaringly obvious to me that I didn’t know enough about drumming. So I’ve been taking drum lessons ever since.
Can we call you a method author?
No. And don’t call me a drummer. I take lessons. I feel there’s a world of difference between the two.
When The Band broke up, there was deep split between Levon and Robbie, having to do with, among other things, Robbie getting a bigger share of the songwriting royalties. Some people take Levon’s side, while Robbie has his side of the story. Can we see your book as pro-Levon?
I tried to approach it totally without prejudice. I got as many quotes from people on both sides of the issue. Unfortunately, Robbie wouldn’t speak with me. But he’s talked about this for many years and probably feels that he’s addressed it sufficiently. I tried to present both sides of the argument. Maybe it was just a coincidence that most of the people I spoke with felt strongly that Levon contributed to the songs.
What are your own thoughts on the issue?
Levon always maintained that all of The Band members collaborated on The Band’s songwriting. But he never explicitly defined what he meant by collaboration. If he meant a distinctive drumbeat or coming up with an arrangement, that doesn’t fit within the legal definition of songwriting. So it’s hard to know exactly what he felt he and the others did contribute.
You cite several examples of Levon’s fierce loyalty and his insistence on fair treatment when it came to others. Is it possible that his feud with Robbie came down to principles, and not the money?
Levon felt that if you crossed him or were disloyal in anyway, he would just cut you off forever. What happened with Robbie was an example of that. Levon was a great guy, but if he felt you screwed him, that was the end.
My favourite Levon quote in the book was him talking about being booed as a member of The Hawks, backing Bob Dylan when he went electric in the mid-1960s. “Them beatniks was tough!” he said. That Levon left The Hawks because of that rough treatment, what does that say about him?
For Levon, music was about enjoyment – for him and the audience. He just didn’t see a reason to do it if people weren’t enjoying what he was putting out. That was the bottom line.
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