“Nightline” correspondent Vicki Mabrey’s 2005 interview with “The Band’s” Levon Helm.
By VICKI MABREY
As soon as the crew and I walked into Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y., it felt like we were home. The space, huge and barn-like, was empty and quiet, but as soon as Levon walked in, he welcomed us like old friends. Levon and I chatted as the crew made last-minute lighting and camera adjustments, and he asked casually where I’m from.
“St Louis,” I told him, and that triggered a memory. He pulled out his mandolin and treated me to a song….
So I headed for old Missouri
Kind faces for to see
There was one Miss Molly Walker
Fell deep in love with me,
Fell deep in love with me.
I didn’t know the song then, but now I do: The Girl I Left Behind, which he recorded on his Grammy award-winning album, “Dirt Farmer.” That’s what the day was like with Levon — bright and spontaneous. He was such a raconteur, a heart-on-sleeve, down-home storyteller. It was cold and snowy outside, but inside it felt like we were on an old porch on a hot summer day sipping sweet tea, an Arkansas farm boy sharing conversation with a girl from upriver in Missouri.
My boyfriend Leon was in town from London and Levon took a liking to him. Maybe it was their nearly matching names, or a shared love of music, but when I called a few days after our “Nightline” piece aired to ask about returning personal photos Levon had given us for the story, it was Levon who answered and told me to grab Leon and come on over. We arrived to find Levon in his living room — a small, comfortably furnished room just off the studio — still in his bathrobe, just getting going and a bit worn out from the Midnight Ramble he’d hosted the night before. It was 4 in the afternoon, but this was a man still recovering from throat cancer, holding concerts practically in his house, trying to raise the money to keep himself — and the music — alive.
Over the years I went back for three Midnight Rambles — misnomers in a way. They started and ended well before midnight, but they did feel like a ramble, like Levon had invited a few talented friends over to play for their less-talented buddies. The studio was two stories, a soaring timber barn made of old wood for better acoustics. People came from all across the country and around the world to attend. You grabbed a seat wherever you could — on the floor in front of the band, on folding chairs, on windowsills, up in the balcony. There were children, old folks, all ages, races and nationalities. They brought food and spread it on a communal table — I chatted during a break with a woman from Maine who brought muffins made from fresh blueberries grown in her garden. I met a group of young Dutch men who’d flown over just to attend a Ramble. Depending on his energy, Levon spent time meeting and greeting the crowd afterward. Some nights were better than others, health-wise. But when he sang and played drums, the energy was full force.
A couple of years ago I was hosting a dinner party for a dozen or so friends, and Levon popped into my head. I thought it was a group he might enjoy, so I called. Again, Levon answered. “Hey, Vicki, come on over!” he said, like we’d just spoken yesterday. I told him I was calling to invite him over, that we’d love to have him and his wife Sandy join us. He said he too was having friends over, and we should merge our groups. It seemed impolite to drag a party of 12 to Levon’s on such short notice, but that’s how he was — spontaneous and warmhearted, loving people, music, and good times. Now I’m sure I — and my guests — wish we’d said yes that night.