Another interesting thing about The Band is that they don't achieve success the same way most artists of the day do. They're actually a reclusive unit. They hunker down like monks in a remote house on the outskirts of the tiny New York state town of Woodstock where they carefully craft near mystical tales of life outside the mainstream. When you listen to many of their songs they seem almost part historical document, and yet are also current enough to capture the imagination of millions of young people in several countries. As American scholar Greil Marcus notes, they have a magic feel for history. They came out of Canada, but had a love affair with the American south, minstrel shows and blues singers.
Unfortunately, their magic doesn't last long. Most of their best work grows out of a five year period before they begin to repeat themselves, and finally fizzle like an evening bonfire in late November. By the mid-seventies three members are preoccupied with debilitating heroin and alcohol addictions. The frustration with this social dynamic pushes their clear thinking principal songwriter to look at options outside the group. It is Robbie Robertson who proposes a halt to the self destruction, and then offers a very public celebratory wake for The Band.
An ardent film buff with ambitions to merge his hobby with his career, Robertson tables the idea of inviting twenty one of the artists who play an important role in their career to join them in a final performance at San Francisco's Winterland auditorium, and then filming the event for posterity. The idea will become The Last Waltz and like so many of their songs, it will become a historical document about the creators of the soundtrack for a whole generation. One of these key performers will be an important historical figure in his own right, Paul Butterfield.
Of all the musicians who appear on stage with The Band at The Last Waltz, Butterfield shares the closest social bond with all the members. Robertson remembers, We knew him from Woodstock. He actually had taken us around Chicago. We had a long relationship with him up until this point. However, as Butterfield's social relationship with members of The Band deepens it also becomes darker. By the seventies there are people in Woodstock who refer Butterfield, Manuel, and Danko as the chemical trio for their excessive abuse of hard drugs.
However, it is Butterfield's talent as a blues singer and historian that should be remembered the most. Firstly, as producer of the concert Robertson chooses Muddy Waters' 1956 hit Forty Days and Forty Nights for the great blues man's performance, but Butterfield interjects, insisting that Waters performing Mannish Boy will be most memorable. It proves to be wise advice, and a testament to Robertson's respect for Butterfield's opinion. As Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin remembers, Muddy loved the way Butterfield played on that song, setting up a warble that "holds up my voice" rather than just playing the song's signature lick. Decades later and Muddy Waters' performance still remains a highlight of the concert.
Another interesting point about the version of Mystery Train from The Last Waltz is that it includes additional lyrics for which Robertson had to secure clearance from the publisher in 1973. As great chronicler of American popular music, Geil Marcus says, It's a song that goes all the way back. Nobody knows where it began. Of Course it's a song that Elvis recorded in 1955, at the Sun Label, maybe his greatest recording there. A couple of year before Junior Parker did it a blues singer at Sun. Before that it a song called Brain Cloudy Blues by Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, before that it was a song called Worried Man Blues by the Carter Family. When Paul Butterfield sang the song in '65 he followed the Junior Parker version which is kind of defeated, well so what, whatever, it's all fatalism. Elvis Presley completely changed that song. When he sang it, ''That train took my baby and I'm getting her back' Well, that's how they do it tonight. I didn't see every show Paul Butterfield ever played, I only saw a couple of 'em.... I don't believe he ever played or sang this song with anymore fervor, with half the fervor that he did this night. One of the things you see in the Last Waltz is the absolute joy of performing, of people saying everything that's in their minds, hearts and bodies. It's putting everything out, leaving nothing behind, leaving not a word unsaid, and that's what you get in this performance. It's impossible to believe that there's anything more that Paul Butterfield could give this song or that there is anything more that this song could give him or the song and the performer could give to the audience. This is one of the absolute highlights of the Last Waltz. It is important to remember that a song with such a rich pedigree also demands respect, so the pressure to perform it flawlessly must have been intense, and as Marcus suggests, they nailed it!