May 02, 2012 at 12:00 AM
 New Song to Benefit Amnesty International

New York Times Blog – One of the last musical projects Levon Helm participated in at his rustic studio in Woodstock, N.Y., was “Toast to Freedom,” a heart-warming single that will go on sale Wednesday to raise money for Amnesty International on its 50th anniversary.
Mr. Helm, the former drummer with The Band who died recently, not only played on the track, but he also encouraged his friends in Woodstock, among them the singer Donald Fagen and the producer Bob Clearmountain, to get involved.  The instrumental tracks and some vocals were recorded in Mr. Helm’s studio, known as the Barn in May 2011, a process recorded in a making-of video.  “Now to be a part of this is going to be a chance for myself, and all of us, all the players, to finally contribute,” Mr. Helm said on the film.

The song was the brainchild of Carl Carlton, a German guitarist and producer who had been recording an album with his band, the Songdogs, in Mr. Helm’s studio earlier that spring.  Mr. Carlton said he was moved by images of a protester in Tunisia who set himself on fire to protest police corruption, setting in motion the uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

A longtime supporter of Amnesty International, Mr. Carlton decided to produce a song that would not only raise money for the human rights group, but also say something about how precious political freedom is.  “Sometimes as musicians we feel so helpless,” he said in an interview.  “All you can do is write some words and music.”

After meeting with Amnesty officials in Dublin to present the idea, Mr. Carlton teamed up with Larry Campbell, a multi-instrumentalist in Mr. Helm’s circle, to write the tune.  They met in New York and spent a week working together at the Chelsea Hotel (he stayed in Arthur Miller’s old room). “It was the hardest thing I ever had to write about,” he said. “It’s so hard not to become superficial.”

Five days later, he came up with lyrics that personified freedom as a woman, “the mother of everything,” as he put it, and sounds like an anthemic love song.  Amnesty officials were delighted with the song, and when he played the demo for Mr. Helm in Woodstock a few days he got the thumbs up and permission to use the studio.

Once the basic tracks were laid down, Mr. Carlton and Jochen Wilms, a music executive who co-produced the track, set about persuading musicians to add their vocals to the record.   Over several months, Mr. Carlton traveled around Europe, the Middle East and the United States, collecting collaborators.   Among the 50 musicians who are on the final recording are Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon,  Keb Mo,  Eric Burden, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, Angelique Kidjo, Rosanne Cash and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

“I hope, of course, that it makes a lot of money for Amnesty, but at the same time it creates awareness,” said Mr. Carlton. “The good thing is for once in my life I feel like Levon Helm. I didn’t make a compromise.”

The track goes on sale on Wednesday afternoon for $1.29 at digital sites like Amazon and iTunes.

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