Levon Helm sang them, but Robbie Robertson wrote them. Bob Dylan wrote them, but Robbie Robertson played them. There are few men that had their fingers deeper into the wet cement that would go on to form the foundations of what we consider Americana, rock, and folk music today. That rub between American country, Southern blues, Arcadian folk, and old fashioned rock and roll all came together with The Band, and with Robbie Robertson as the conductor.
It was never particularly commercially viable or popular in the conventional sense. But the songs of The Band might have been some of the most influential music ever recorded and released. This is true for multiple generations, and in a manner that still lingers into the present day. That is why it won’t just be rock fans, but fans of folk, country, Americana, and bluegrass that will mourn the death of Robbie Robertson, despite what was sometimes a complicated assessment of his legacy by his former bandmates.
Born in Toronto, Ontario on July 5th, Robbie Robertson would go on to write some of the best-known songs from The Band, including “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Though over time his guitar playing went from flashy to more subdued and introspective, Robertson was considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and earned praise from Jimi Hendrix. Robertson was one of the very founders of the sound that infers so much of alt-country, Americana, Red Dirt, and independent country music today.
Most anybody who knows about The Band also knows their origin story back and forth. Rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins first discovered Robbie Robertson at a club on Merton Street in Toronto while Robertson was playing in a band called The Suedes. Hawkins gobbled Robertson up for his backing band The Hawks. Drummer and singer Levon Helm was already with the band, and by the end of 1961, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all playing in the band too, seeding what eventually would be known as The Band.
Early Hawks guitar player Roy Buchanan was a big influence on Robertson, including perfecting the style of bending two strings at once to emulate the twang of a steel guitar, which often helped give The Band that rootsy and country sound despite their foundations in rock and roll. By 1964, Robertson and the other players had left Ronnie Hawkins and were performing as Levon and the Hawks with Levon Helm singing lead. In 1965, they played a six night stint with Conway Twitty at Tony Mart’s club on the Jersey Shore.
Shortly after the Conway Twitty gigs, Robbie Robertson got a call from Bob Dylan’s management, asking if he wanted to join Dylan’s backing band. Robertson initially refused, but eventually agreed to play a few shows as a member of a pickup band with Al Kooper and others. Eventually, a version of The Hawks sans Levon Helm were behind Dylan on a nightly basis, and stirring controversy since this was the era that “Dylan went electric,” and drew the ire of many folk purists. This also helped put Robbie Robertson and The Hawks on the national radar.
Robertson and The Hawks also started recording with Dylan, and moved with him to Upstate New York in early 1967. The Hawks rented a house in West Saugerties, New York with pink siding that went on to be affectionately known as “Big Pink.” It was inside that house that The Band would take form, codified when former Hawks drummer/singer Levon Helm rejoined them. Big Pink would later give birth to Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, and the debut album from The Band, Music From Big Pink.
The legacy of Robbie Robertson and The Band became one of shirking conventional commercial interests, and releasing what on the surface was rather fey, slow, eclectic, but inventive and ultimately influential music. When you think that the first song the public heard on Music From Big Pink was the slow and droning “Tears of Rage,” it really helps put in perspective just how different The Band was trying to be.
By melding together so many roots music influences, The Band pioneered what would become “Americana” today. It was too country for rock, to rock for country, with a folk-inspired heart, and even elements of ragtime and Cajun mixed in. Unlike the rest of The Band, Levon Helm was originally from Arkansas. Robbie Robertson used this to specifically write songs that would work well from Levon’s perspective, and fit well with his Southern twang. That is how a Canadian ended up penning the mournful and iconic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Despite the courtesies Robbie Robertson extended to Helm in the writing, he didn’t always extend those courtesies by giving his fellow Band members writing credits when they contributed meaningful portions to the songs. With Robertson receiving the majority of the royalties from The Band’s catalog, this began to cause friction within the group. In a 1993 biography, Levon Helm was outspoken about how he felt The Band’s songs were more true collaborations, and he deserved more credit. Other members of The Band concurred.
The Band couldn’t have ended more beautifully, though. Agreeing to go their separate ways, they performed their final concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, CA, with director Martin Scorsese making it into arguably one of the greatest music films of all time called The Last Waltz. Guests on the film included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young among others, speaking to the wide influence and appreciation The Band sowed in less than ten years.
The Band would reform off and on in coming years, and Robbie Robertson also had a solo career. Robertson also continued to work closely with Martin Scorsese on movie scores and soundtracks for films such as Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Irishman (2019), and Killers of the Flower Moon to be released later in 2023.
A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, considered one of the most accomplished Canadian musicians of all time, and counted among the founding fathers of the American Roots categories of modern music, Robbie Robertson is a major loss to the music world including in country, where his influence continues.
Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson passed away in Los Angeles on Wednesday, August 9th, after suffering from a long illness. He was 80 years old.
Garth Hudson is now the last surviving original member of The Band.