Levon Helm and Songwriting: Larry Campbell and Robbie Robertson Weigh In
Robbie Robertson, who is currently working on his autobiography, among other projects, said Helm, like many talented musicians, simply wasn’t focused on writing. Helm’s solo albums seem to bear that out; though he’s credited with multiple arrangements, he’s almost never listed as a song’s writer or co-writer. Though Helm co-wrote some of The Band’s post-Robertson output, he didn’t spend much time revisiting those tunes on his later solo work, which includes several live albums containing Robertson-penned Band classics.
The two of you wrote only a few songs together. I could only find three, actually [‘Jemima Surrender,’ ‘Strawberry Wine’ and ‘Life is a Carnival’].
The only song that Levon ever really had any writing part of was ‘Strawberry Wine.’ He came back from Arkansas one time and said, ‘I’ve started this song; see if you think there’s anything there because I’ve got like, a verse and a chorus, and if you think it’s worthwhile, maybe you can help me finish it.’ So he sang what he had and I really enjoyed it. So I wrote some more verses to it. I loved the idea that he was willing to try and do some writing. On the other songs, he was there when I was writing these songs, and I really wanted to be encouraging for him to try and to participate in the songwriting. I just loved the feeling of him participating in that, and I was being a little bit naïve in the idea that some people write and some people don’t. Ringo Starr never wrote any songs. Charlie Watts never wrote any songs. I’m not just necessarily picking on drummers, but some people do, and some people don’t. You know, Garth [Hudson] doesn’t write songs. And Garth was the most musical person in The Band. It’s a very strange phenomenon, who does and how come and whatever. It’s a real mystery. But it just is what it is.
What about ‘Life is a Carnival’? That’s credited to all three of you. [The credit reads Rick Danko, Helm and Robertson, in that order.]
Right. He was just there when I was writing that.
But then later on, he claimed that he didn’t get credit for what he really did. And I know you’ve disputed that and that was part the root of the schism. Did you ever resolve that or make him see your point of view that you had been doing the writing?
Oh, I didn’t need to convince anybody of that. I mean, everybody knew that. Richard [Manuel] and I wrote several songs together. Rick and I wrote songs together. When you write a song with somebody, you say you write a song with somebody. If they didn’t work to write it, it doesn’t say that they wrote it.
What did you think of his solo work?
I didn’t hear all of it. I heard some of what he did. Levon was always a very talented guy. It would be very difficult for him to do music that wasn’t good. I was honored to be able to play music with him and for him to be my best friend for years and years.
Is there anything else that you want to address in terms of the relationship you had during The Band or afterwards?
When Levon came back after he had left, when we were playing with Bob Dylan, I can’t tell you how happy I was for his return, because it was like having a table and one leg was missing. I just doesn’t work. And when he came back, I thought, ‘OK, now we can really get down to business.’ We were already writing songs for Big Pink and we were deep into it. But nevertheless, when Levon came back, I thought that we were ready to go then. And he was. Like I said, he was my closest friend in the world for such a long time that it was just such a great sense of completion.
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