There’s been kind of a slow-motion Levon Helm festival going on here for the past few months. A while back, I picked up a CD/DVD combination pack titled Love for Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, documenting an October 2012 concert aimed at raising funds to preserve the Woodstock recording studio and performance venue of the late musician, who passed on earlier that year.
The line-up for the show was pretty impressive. Along with the Levon Helm band, which counts as one of its members Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm, those who performed included Roger Waters, Mavis Staples, Garth Hudson, Marc Cohn, Gregg Allman, John Mayer, Ray LaMontagne, Dierks Bentley, John Hiatt, Jakob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Potter and quite a few more.
It took me a couple days to get through the concert, as I generally do my DVD watching for an hour or so late in the evening after the Texas Gal has retired for the night. And of course, tracks from the CDs of the show occasionally popped up randomly before, during and since the time I finished the film. My favorite performances? Three of them stand out: Marc Cohn’s “Listening to Levon,” which comes from his 2007 album Join The Parade; Mavis Staples’ take on “Move Along Train,” a 1966 Staple Singers’ track covered by Levon on his final album, 2009’s Electric Dirt; and Grace Potter’s rendition of “I Shall Be Released,” which The Band recorded for its 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink.
Another DVD I’ve been taking in even more slowly is the 2011 release titled Ramble At The Ryman, chronicling a 2008 performance by Levon and his band – with a few guests – at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, the one-time home of the Grand Old Opry. As does Love For Levon, the Ramble At The Ryman draws significantly on the catalog of The Band as well as wide swaths of American folk and country music. I’m not sure why I’m going more slowly on viewing Ramble At The Ryman; perhaps it’s because I had the CD of the performance long before I got the DVD, and there are no real surprises. (Conversely, I got Love For Levon as a CD/DVD package, so most performances on the DVD were new as I watched.)
But there was a third portion to the Levonfest this week. Digging in the catalog of the local Great River Regional Library, I found the DVD Ain’t In It For My Health, a film by Jacob Hatley that shows Levon at home in Woodstock and on the road in early 2008 as Levon is recording Electric Dirt. During the film’s shooting, Levon learns that The Band will be given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and that his 2007 album Dirt Farmer was nominated for (and won) a Grammy for best traditional folk album. He dismisses the lifetime achievement award as – I think I have the quote correct – “something for the folks in the suits,” but he’s clearly delighted near the end of the film to hear the news about the Grammy for Dirt Farmer.
Beyond those bits, two portions of Ain’t In It For My Health stick with me: There is a sequence showing Levon with some of his farming neighbors, and at one point, Levon drives one of their tractors around a field with a huge grin on his face. And several times during the shooting, we see Levon and Larry Campbell of the Levon Helm Band working on an unfinished Hank Williams song called “You’ll Never Again Be Mine.”
The unfinished lyrics were among those found by a janitor for Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2006. After some legal wrangling, Sony sent the lyrics to Bob Dylan, asking him to complete the songs. Levon was one of those invited to take part in the project, along with Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and others. Ain’t In It For My Health shows several brief scenes of Levon and Campbell crafting a melody and filling in lyrics for the song’s bridge.
And in the last portions of the film, we see other members of Levon’s band laying down their parts for the track. Near the end of the film, Levon, with his voice diminished by age and ravaged by illness but still vital, adds the lead vocal.
Here’s how “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” turned out on the 2011 album The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams. It’s today’s Saturday Single.