Ironically, the origins of Americana — or, perhaps we should just call it “roots music” — lie in the States’ neighbor to the North. As guitarist and principal songwriter and guitarist for The Band, Robbie Robertson, who passed away last week about a month after his 80th birthday, is one of a small number of figures who can truly be said to have changed the shape of contemporary music.
Born on July 5, 1943 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Robertson had a mother of First Nations heritage and a Jewish father who split up when he was in his early teens. Robertson got into the show business life at a young age: The summer when he was 14, he worked at carnivals. He’d already joined his first band, Littler Caesar and the Consuls, a year earlier. In 1959, he started working with the Arkansas-born rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins in his backing band, the Hawks.
The Hawks would later become The Band after splitting from Ronnie in 1964. In 1965, he attracted the attention of Bob Dylan, who wanted to hire him to play guitar in his band. Robertson agreed to play a few shows with him, which led to Dylan eventually hiring the rest of the Hawks, beginning with Levon Helm on drums. Among the shows that Robertson played with Dylan was his seminal performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 where he went electric.
In 1966, following a tour the previous year with the Hawks, Dylan injured his neck in a motorcycle accident, leading him to take time away from touring. In 1967, Dylan invited the band to join him in Woodstock, New York, where was convalescing. Two major projects would be completed this time: the collaborative Basement Tapes, and The Band’s initial LP, Music From Big Pink, which was released the following year.
Music from Big Pink was an immediate commercial and critical success, influencing a whole slew of other artists and bands from the Beatles to Eric Clapton. The next year, they released their self-titled album, which was just as big of a hit. For the next several years — until they broke up in 1976 — The Band was one of the biggest acts in the world. In 1973, along with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, The Band was part of the most-attended music festival in history, the Watkins Glen Summer Jam, which attracted 650,000 fans to New York’s Finger Lakes region.
Stream Music from Big Pink by The Band on Spotify:
From their debut release in 1968, The Band were only together eight more years, as conflicts between members tore the group apart. They put on their final concert, the Last Waltz, in 1976, with a whole slew of guests: Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, the Staple Singers, Muddy Waters, and Dr. John were all there for The Band’s last hurrah. The concert was filmed and turned into one of the great music documentaries of all time by ascendant director Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese and Robertson began, with The Last Waltz, a working relationship (and close friendship) that lasted until Robertson’s death. Robertson became the preferred scorer for his films, including Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and Killers of the Flower Moon, which will be released later this year. Shortly after Robertson’s passing, Scorsese released a touching statement in tribute to his longtime friend.
I’ve alluded to conflicts between members of The Band. These disputes became quite public, with The Band’s other members — Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson — claiming the band’s songwriting process had been collaborative. Many of The Band’s songs, like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up On Cripple Creek,” became classics, and they were frequently recorded by other artists. Robertson’s songwriting credit meant he received royalties, while the other members of The Band did not. As time went on, these conflicts between more pronounced as the other members of The Band encountered financial and other difficulties; several of them faced multiple bankruptcies. Levon Helm, in particular, was vociferous in his claims that the rest of the group deserved more credit — and more money — for their contributions.
When it comes to the disputes over the authorship of The Band’s songs, I take an agnostic position. We weren’t there, and we will never really know the truth of what happened. There aren’t any objective records or accounts we can consult to determine who is telling the truth and who is not. I think it’s likely that the two sides in this dispute both genuinely believe their claims, and that the truth is a messy thing. If the rest of The Band deserved more credit for the songs, Robertson didn’t deserve any less.
After the breakup of The Band, in addition to working with Scorsese, Robertson became an occasional actor and an infrequent, if well-received solo artist, releasing his first record in 1987. Though he didn’t record frequently, he received Grammy nominations for his solo work. In 2016, he published a memoir, Testimony, and he released an album of the same. More recently, he appeared in Scorsese’s documentary about The Band, Once Were Brothers.
It’s been a hard few weeks, with the loss of Sinead O’ Connor, Sixto Rodriguez (aka Sugar Man), and now Robertson. But we still have their music, and in the case of Robertson, entire genres carry on his legacy.