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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 258
Mon. Nov 18, 2013

“Jemima Surrender”
The Band

1969

“♫ I’ll
bring over
my Fender/
& play all
night with
you
♫”

“Jemima Surrender” has this all for one sound that was a reflection of the vivacious unity between the members of The Band, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. But that collective harmony was short lived due to the battle for songwriting credit that lingers on, clouding the band’s history with greed, remains apart of the imperfect legacy of North America’s greatest five-piece band. I have no doubt that Robbie Robertson deserves credit for leading The Band to commercial success. But one has to wonder what happened to The Band’s creative output after 1969? Did fame truly stifle the creativity of one of North America’s greatest five peace of all time? Did Helm, Hudson, Manuel and Danko secede all songwriting authority to Robertson? Or did Robbie see an opportunity to give himself a bigger percentage of the song royalties over his band-mates? Will we ever truly unearth what happened to The Band?

The Band’s 1969 were the long awaited follow-up to 1968’s critically acclaimed debut album Music from Big Pink. By 1969, Robertson, Helm, Hudson, Manuel and Danko still had that all for one, band of brother’s work ethic that spawned such Big Pink classics like “The Weight” and “Tears of Rage.” The Band’s self title second album had a bluesier, southern charmed Americana feel. “Jemima” thrives on that spirit as this lusty southern roots rocker that was helmed by Levon, who continued his soulful croons that were brilliantly captured on Big Pink’s “The Weight.” Helm described the recording of “Surrender” in his book The Wheel’s on Fire, co-authored with Stephen Davis, when The Band’s drummer wrote, “We also cut “Jemima Surrender” there, which I wrote with Robertson. That was another of those songs about wanting the love of a lady of color; Aunt Jemima was an s close as we could get for a name. We switched instruments: Richard was on drums, I played guitar, and I think Rick played a six-string bass.”

But where was Robbie when Richard, Rick and Levon cut the backing track to “Surrender?” In Barney Hoskyns’ Across The Divide: The Band and America, Robertson explained why his output was limited on the 1969 self-titled album, when Robbie said, “The biggest reason why I chose not to sing was that it would have unbalanced the whole thing. I didn’t want to be the writer and the guitar player and the singer, because it wouldn’t have been a band anymore. But it was also that I loved being the director, I enjoy saying, “You know, why don’t you try singing this in here? When we get to this section, you go up. Then we’ll sing the melody, and the characters will change.”

This early version of “Jemima” begs the question how much did Robertson actually bring to Levon’s song. I have to admit that Robertson’s George Harrison-esque guitar solo, is a highlight of the final song from 1969’s self titled The Band but did he just add those colorfully bluesy Dark Horse textured licks along with the harmony vocals and horns that fleshed out the sound brought together by producer John Simon?

In Hoskyns book, Across the Great Divide, Robertson admits doing to his bandmates like Hudson for guidance during the songwriting process when Robbie explained, “If there was something about the feeling in a song, an angle I couldn’t get, Levon would always find ways to get the feel I hadn’t been able to express. And Rick would come up with some great harmony ideas. […] If I was trying to do a song that was on the verge of being a little more sophisticated than what we normally did, Garth would help me with the chord structures. I’d say, “I’m playing this, Garth, but there’s something missing, something wrong.”
The+Band
Something was definitely wrong when Levon saw the final credits to 1969’s The Band LP. Helm was literally shocked when The Band’s self titled second album was released when he wrote in his book The Wheel’s on Fire, “So when the album came out, I discovered that I was credited for writing half of ‘Jemima Surrender’ and that was it. Richard was a co-writer on three songs. Rick and Garth went uncredited. Robbie Robertson was credited on all twelve songs. Somebody had pencil whipped us. It was an old tactic: divide and conquer.”

Unfortunately this dark episode in the life of The Band was not an original story, as Rick Danko said in Helm’s book that after the money from the song royalties started rolling in, the band changed and wasn’t ready to deal with commercial success as he explained, “Those first royalty checks we got almost killed some of us. “This Wheel’s on Fire” was never really a hit, but it had been recorded by a few people, and all of a sudden I got a couple hundred thousand dollars out of left field! Dealing with this wasn’t in the fuckin’ manual, man. I’m here to tell you that it’s a crying shame to see what success can do to some people. I’m sure it wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to the band.”

Danko wasn’t the only one to realize that these royalties were the first sign of trouble for The Band. Helm saw the lack of songwriting credits stalled the band’s creative progress as he noted in his book The Wheel’s on Fire, when he wrote, “After that [The Band’s 1969’s album], the level of the group’s collaboration declined, and our creative process was severely disrupted. There was confusion. It’s important to recognize Robertson’s role as a catalyst and writer, but I blame Albert Grossman for letting him or giving him or making him take too much credit for the band’s work.”

Albert Grossman was Bob Dylan’s manager who then was chosen to manage The Band. According to Levon, it seemed like Grossman’s loyalties were linked more with Robertson than the rest of The Band as he explained in his book, “I complained that he [Robbie Robertson] and Albert had been making important business decisions without consulting the rest of us and far too much cash was coming down in his and Albert’s corner. Our publishing split was far from fair, I told [Robbie], and had to be fixed. I told [Robertson] that he and Albert ought to try to write some music without us, because they couldn’t possibly find the songs unless we all were searching together. I cautioned that most so-called business moves had fucked up a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them.”

Robertson didn’t listen or never did back down from his stance as being the principled chief songwriter of The Band as Robbie told Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot in 2002, “To say that it was an issue [while they were together in The Band] is just nonsense, utter nonsense, after all these years. Who did the work? I tried, I begged Levon to write songs or help me write songs — all the guys. I always encouraged everybody to write. You can’t make somebody do what they don’t want to do or can’t do, and he’s not a songwriter. With The Band he started to write one song, `Strawberry Wine,’ the whole time and couldn’t finish it, and I helped him finish it. And there were some other songs that I wrote and he was there when I was writing them, and just because he was being supportive, I gave him credit on a couple of songs. He didn’t write one note, one word, nothing. What he’s saying now is the result of somebody thinking about their financial problems. I wrote these songs and then 20 or 30 years later somebody comes back and says he wrote the songs?” Just by reading these quotes from Robertson and Helm, you can feel the literal ‘Great Divide’ growing larger between these legends after 1969, it’s amazing that they lasted until seven more years until The Band’s last show in 1976 as a collective five piece documented in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

Like I said before, this story is old. I actually asked Bill Janovitz, author of Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell The Story of The Rolling Stones, when I interviewed him about the controversy over songwriting credits in The Stones and he said, “Who really knows how much input others have. Often musicians who cannot write consistently great stuff confuse arranging and helping to flesh out songs with “songwriting.” If, for example, Mick Taylor really was a writer of those great songs, why is it that he did not keep writing such great songs, or had not done so before, as far as I am aware anyway?” Janovitz has a point about The Stones and for The Band’s case, unfortunately, we weren’t there. The only people who know exactly who wrote what were Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Hudson and Danko.

But at least not all bands fall into this trap, R.E.M. was one that learned the lessons that The Band never did as author Mirit Eliraz discovered in his book, Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M., Radiohead, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when Peter Buck explained, “I remember reading an interview where the drummer of a famous 60’s band said, ‘The money’s in songwriting, and I am going to get three of my songs on the next album no matter how bad they are.”” Michael Stipe commented on how R.E.M. dealt with that common greed within bands, in Music and Musicians magazine when R.E.M.’s singer said, “Peter made the suggestion at the very beginning of R.E.M. that we should credit all the songs to everybody, because what breaks bands up as much as anything else is a principal songwriter getting all the money. We also knew that it would be all of us contributing.” I believe Eliraz said it best when he wrote in his book Band Together, “[Buck’s insistence] of distributing the songwriting credits and money four ways in what Miss calls one of the best decisions the band ever made.”

When I hear this joyful jewel from The Band’s 1969’s self titled second album, “Jemima Surrender” remains a rhythmic reminder of what could have been. For another rock band, divided and conquered by songwriting royalties where loyalties took a backseat to the love of the almighty dollar. Unfortunately, The Band became the lesson that all future bands and artists should heed. It’s a shame that one of the most celebrated five piece band in North American rock history would fall into this all familiar trap now a cliché but back in the late sixties and seventies artists like The Band’s original goal was to play songs for the love or music. But what happens when the music ends? Who takes care of the musicians, and the artist when the music is over?

So go back and relive the magic of The Band, circa 1969. When all that ever matters is what’s reflected on wax and the sound of “Jemima” is one which demands that you “Surrender” yourself to the glory of this classic cut before the story of The Band is soured with greed and contention over songwriting royalties. “Jemima Surrender” is how we should truly remember The Band, bluesy, southern charmed Americana—joyful and triumphant.

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