Robbie Robertson at Six Nations
On October 15, 2017, at the kind invitation of Tim Johnson, Randy was privileged to speak at the Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada. He presented a testimonial to Robbie Robertson - Songwriter, Storyteller, Author, Film Score Producer and leader of THE BAND. Mr. Robertson was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at Six Nations, where he spent part of his childhood and learned to play guitar. Randy also joined many other fine Native musicians in performing 'The Weight', by Robbie Robertson, to end the program.
Written and delivered on October 14, 2017 at the awarding of the Six Nations Lifetime Achievement Award to Robbie Robertson.
I have to begin with a caveat, in case I begin tripping over my own tongue. I was delighted when Tim Johnson asked me to speak on this occasion. Delighted and terrified, actually. Robbie Robertson has been my unmitigated musical hero since I was 16. I’m now 65. I’m just telling you folks that so you don’t think it’s some kind of gushing schoolboy crush. I mean, it’s been 50 years.
There’ve been many unexpected historic moments that changed music for all time: Paganini completed the first known pop-star rehab, took the stage with his violin and set a new bar. Louis Gottschalk took sounds he’d heard on Congo Square and injected American music with a groove. Jelly Roll Morton bumped heads with other giants in Storyville, creating New Orleans Jazz. Paul Whiteman announced Gershwin would write a Jazz Symphony which Gershwin knew nothing about and panicked, creating Rhapsody in Blue. John Hammond hired Benny Goodman to make an album of Black Jazz, starting a chain reaction that broke down racial barriers in recording. Muddy Waters left the Delta, headed to Chicago, plugged in and electrified the Blues. And The Band released Music From Big Pink in ’68.
Big Pink. It changed everything. It brought music back to earth. At first, it was like “What the hell was that?” Then we started to pick up on the subtleties, the texture, the tales. Soon, we weren’t listening to much else, nor was the rest of the Music world, whether nobility or plebian. We all bowed, whether Eric Clapton, George Harrison or Joe Shmoe down at the corner bar. We learned guitarists didn’t have to always play blistering leads– Robbie Robertson showed that being spare could be emotionally moving. It was quiet. And time changes in Rock and Roll? Robbie Robertson was introduced as a musical force. The Band found a place in music history with their very first independent steps.
Expected concerts from The Band didn’t come. Instead, a bit over a year later, The Band’s self-titled second album appeared. This time we weren’t just astonished … we were overcome. For one thing, we learned you could actually have bass on a record. But the most important thing was that the songwriting was so rich and so evocative that it gave us pause – we’d never heard anything like it before. That’s Robbie Robertson.
A couple years later, I picked up a bootleg copy of Bob Dylan’s supposed 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert with the Band. It was nothing short of amazing. This was the act that got booed off every stage? Every other group in ‘66 sounded like transistorized garage amateurs compared to The Band with Dylan. On that tour, The Band created a massive electrically charged orchestral storm. Those Canadian boys again. And when they went back on the road with Dylan in ’74 – man, I thought the roof of Maple Leaf Garden was going to come off.
There was more from The Band in the next few years. We were never disappointed. The stories and shades of sound just poured from every album. We never cared what critics said. The Press had labeled The Band’s music as ‘Americana’. Time magazine called it ‘Country Rock’. I wasn’t sure how either label really fit the broad scope of their work. However, by the time ‘Stage Fright’ and ‘Cahoots’ came out, we put a finger on something else about Robbie’s songwriting we hadn’t realized before.
From the early days until now, songs of Robbie Robertson are ‘different’, with a capital D. In his songs, you absorb the warmth of the sun, smell the fields, hear crickets chirp, feel the breeze caress your face, feel wind and rain lash against your skin, feel the soil under bare feet, scrape your hands on the bark of trees. The land, river, trail or streetscape is part of the story. We may not have known he was Native back then, but his music told the tale. The songs breathed. You didn’t just hear heartbreak or joy – you felt it. He became our storyteller, our shaman, our soothsayer.
As for the Band’s music - there’s simply not time to discuss it all. Nor should we. It’s for listening. Seriously. Go listen to it, and to Robbie’s solo work. None of it’s aged. It’s still relevant. Read his book ‘Testimony’. And if you never heard The Band play live, you missed one of the great musical pleasures of the century.
In 1976, The Band said goodbye to touring. Martin Scorsese filmed it as the quintessential Rock Music film ‘The Last Waltz’. Pretty much all of rock royalty appears in the film – Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and many others. But what strikes me most about the ‘Last Waltz’ is twofold. Firstly, these weren’t just celebrities – they were the top songwriters of a generation. Secondly, Robbie and the Band showed us they could play anything. They were such formidable musicians that if they’d wanted, they could have left the Wrecking Crew in the dust. Anyway, within a few years of the film’s release, members of The Band were back at it on the road. But not Robbie. He kept his word then, and to my knowledge, still has.
We waited ten years to hear from him again. Meanwhile, there was his film work. Carny. Raging Bull. The King of Comedy. The Color of Money. That last one: from the whistling at the opening to the end, just pure Robertson – driving, gritty and provocative. Robbie’s music becomes a character in the films he’s involved with.
In ‘87, thunder struck with the release of the album ‘Robbie Robertson’ - a total change from the sound of The Band, but the writing and recording were simply breathtaking. And something more. Robbie was no longer personal about being Native. Videos for ‘Fallen Angel’ and ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ came right out and said “I’m an Indian, and proud of it”. From then until now, his ambient soundscapes are just incredible. There are always sounds we’ve never heard before and we continue to be surprised. Robbie’s next album, ‘Storyville’, was released in ‘91 - a collection of songs fixated on New Orleans and The South that was so much a part of his musical inspiration.
In ‘94, Robbie released ‘Music for the Native Americans’, music inspired by his heritage. Rita Coolidge, Ulali and Pura Fe appear, as do other Native musicians, including a couple of other Robertsons. We’d heard the work of John Trudell and Jesse Ed earlier, but Robbie’s historic recording took us much farther down that road. The next album, in ‘98, was also Native-centered. ‘Contact from the Underworld of Redboy’, used programming, techno-beats and electronic ambience that could make Brian Eno swoon. It also included some folks sitting in this room today. Both albums were strongly infused with a sense of Native spirituality. And on Redboy, we got Leonard Peltier telling his own story for the first time. That’s some kind of statement.
There were other films. ‘Any Given Sunday’ stands out – a football movie by Oliver Stone that used much of Robbie’s Native music. I mean, Pro footballers battling on the gridiron underscored by ‘Ghost Dance’? Who would have thought? But it works, and it’s awe-inspiring. Then there’s all the work with Martin Scorsese on some of the biggest films of two centuries. Gangs of New York. The Departed. Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street. And besides blockbusters, there are many lesser known films that took on Native perspectives.
Robbie’s most recent album is ‘How to Become Clairvoyant’, a textural journey into reflection. Just beautiful music. Surprising us as always, he even picks up a classical guitar to solo. He’s got Robert Randolf playing steel guitar and Eric Claption along for most of the ride. I hope Mr. Clapton is happy. He wanted in on The Band from day one.
Now, anyone that’s ever been in a band knows it’s not all peaches and cream. The audience just sees the vision of solidarity before them … but a band can be like a marriage with multiple partners. There are personal differences, musical differences, political differences, philosophical differences and perhaps most importantly, differences in work ethic.
The Band experienced some controversy much later, but Robbie never became publicly defensive or contentious and never wavered from avoiding bickering or from being a perfect gentleman. The most balanced take on it appeared in print, not from him, but from his daughter Alexandra. As in his work with Jesse Winchester earlier and his later retelling of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, Robbie seemed to embody the spirit of the Haudenosaunee - a spirit of reconciliation.
Finally, Robbie’s influence? Too huge to define. Too deep a river to wade. But, in a nutshell, I can tell you where to begin. The Beatles made the dubious decision to film themselves making an album called ‘Let it Be’. Sadly, all those differences and tensions between band members come screaming across. Our wish to be a fly on the wall backfired. But here’s something not well known. There was a photo book that came with the deluxe album, which also contained dialogue from the film. In one scene, Paul McCartney is introducing one of his songs to the other Beatles and says “You have to pretend to be The Band on this one.” John Lennon just peers back at him over his glasses and replies “I have been on all of them”. Influence?
The evening after Tim phoned, my wife and I were sitting on the front porch. I said “I’m glad Tim asked me to speak, because if I just had to meet Robbie, I wouldn’t know what to say.” I’ll close now with her reply, because it reflects what many people both here and around the world feel. Her few words are so much more eloquent than all of mine today. Betty said “I’d just tell him ‘Thank you for providing the soundtrack for my life’.”
Robbie Robertson was also a major participant in the award winning film "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World". Randy moderated a post-screening discussion with Director Catherine Bainbridge and Executive Producers Tim Johnson and Christina Fon on September 8th and 10th, 2017. "Rumble" was awarded for Masterful Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival and took first honors at Hot Docs. The discussion was held at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, Ontario.