Robbie Robertson on Levon Helm: ‘He Could Sing Better Than Anybody’

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Robbie Robertson and Dan Rather (Photo: Amanda Taraska; used with permission)

On the eighth season of AXS TV’s acclaimed celebrity sit-down series, The Big Interview With Dan Rather, that ran in 2020, the erudite host was joined by the co-founder of The Band, Robbie Robertson, on an episode that aired that May 6.

It was a particularly busy period for Robertson. The musician released a solo album, Sinematic, in late 2019 and wrote the score for Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed film, The Irishman. A 50th anniversary edition of The Band’s 1969 self-titled, second album had recently arrived. And the feature-length documentary film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, was released in theaters in 2020.

In the episode, Robertson talks about bonding with Bob Dylan while being booed by folk purists during their first electric tour in 1965, why The Band didn’t tour to support their debut album, and their final concert, The Last Waltz.

Of his songwriting, Robertson tells Rather, “Nobody was writing songs about the Civil War from a southern family’s point of view. That was just off limits; it wasn’t part of popular music. It doesn’t belong. And I wrote this song because I wanted to write something that Levon [Helm] could sing better than anybody in the world.” He’s talking, of course, about “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Watch Robertson talk about his upbringing and his songwriting

He also addresses his relationship with Helm. “Ten years or more [after The Band], Levon hit some hard times,” he says. “He became angry and turned his anger towards me. For all the years we were together, we never had a cross word. Ever.”

Watch Robertson discuss their relationship

In another clip from the episode, Robertson tells of working with his Band-mates while they were living together in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s home in 1969, and creating such classics as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag, Mama, Rag,” and more.

“It was when people starting referring to our music as ‘Americana,'” he says, “and now there’s a whole category called Americana. It all came out of Sammy Davis, Jr’s pool house.”

The entire episode can be viewed here.

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9 Comments so far

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  1. JJ
    #1 JJ 5 May, 2020, 09:57

    For some reason, I don’t believe him.

    Reply this comment
  2. Buck1961
    #2 Buck1961 5 May, 2020, 12:56

    Robbie Robertson needs to stop talking.

    Reply this comment
  3. Da Mick
    #3 Da Mick 5 May, 2020, 17:36

    The media completely gives it over to Robertson’s version of how things were. The fans see through it all. I’ve been skeptical of him ever since his appearances in The Last Waltz. He claims authorship of all those songs, but comes off as the least talented member of The Band.

    Reply this comment
  4. Kevin J
    #4 Kevin J 5 May, 2020, 18:58

    Well, Da Mick and others, The Band’s producer set the record straight on the songwriting issues a long time ago…..

    “ Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players.” – John Simon, the producer to the first two Band albums

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  5. Je Go
    #5 Je Go 5 May, 2020, 20:27

    He didnt invent Americana. Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane etc were incorporating country, folk use and jazz in 65 -66

    Reply this comment
  6. RicoGall
    #6 RicoGall 5 May, 2020, 22:01

    How/Where does one get AXS TV ?

    Reply this comment
  7. hatter
    #7 hatter 10 May, 2020, 13:57

    well we’ve seen this before, ego-go-go. it’s sad but almost expected. I believe in levon, but who knows? all I know is helm’s electric dirt was real thing for sure. calling them self’s ” the band” was f’in lazy and stupid! but they were much appreciated by all and the waltz was the best rock doc. to date. joe drummer’s let’s rock again is exc.

    Reply this comment
  8. TR
    #8 TR 12 August, 2023, 00:25

    At age 74 now I remember all those great songs from THE BAND and many others. So sad to hear of the many musicians of our time now gone. I met Robbie a few years ago when he flew up here for the celebration of life we had at “The Railway Club” on the death of Billy Cowsill. Thanks much for these wonderful clips from the past ! Your excellent website is wonderful and much appreciated ! T R

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