It began with a young boy devouring American music via the radio stations that drifted onto his remote Ontario reservation. It ended as one of the great legacies of rock. Robbie Robertson, who died this week at age 80, is rightly being lauded for a career that revived interest in the Americana genre via songs like “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
During the early 60s, Robertson formed a backing band (The Hawks) for American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins with future Band mates, including Levon Helm and Rick Danko. Their fortunes took a big leap forward when Bob Dylan asked them to back him on his 1966 tour. In keeping with their appreciation for an organic, no-frills sound, they went by an equally simple moniker, The Band.
At the beating heart of The Band was an appreciation and exploration of Americana, country music, and the lore of eras past. Robertson had spent some time working as a “carny” and incorporated into his songs the feel of the small towns he’d visited. He’s credited as one of the best storytellers in music; as a Canadian, he may not have lived through what happened in the post-Civil War South, but you sure felt as if he had.
The Band revived interest in American roots music and influenced everyone from Eric Clapton and George Harrison to the next generation(s) of stateside roots musicians.
As the group began to implode from drug use and clashing egos, Robertson struggled to hold them together. By 1976, he – and they – were done. Their final performance was famously filmed as a documentary by Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz); that experience began a longtime friendship and collaboration between the director and musician.
Robertson went on to oversee/contribute music to Scorsese films including Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street, and most recently, Killers of The Flower Moon. This last project is something of a full-circle experience between its Native American storyline and Robertson’s own heritage.
While Robertson will be forever tied to classic Band albums like Music from Big Pink, he put out five very fine solo albums, starting with his eponymous 1987 project, followed by 1991’s Storyville. Between those two albums alone, he collaborated with Bruce Hornsby, Ivan Neville, Peter Gabriel, U2, The Bodeans, and Maria McKee.
Of all the great songs that he wrote, Robbie Robertson will forever be associated with “The Weight,” which he once described as being about “the impossibility of sainthood.” In 2019, a global (literally) band covered it for the Playing for Change initiative. It seems a fitting tribute to a man whose musical influence transcended time and borders.
Photo: Robbie Robertson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions (2000) (Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com via Wikimedia Commons)