In 1960, when he was only 16 years old, Robbie Robertson had to lie to the border guard when he made the most important journey of his life, which took him from his native Toronto, Canada, to Fayetteville, Ark. Robertson was heading south on the invitation of the swashbuckling rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who was looking for a new guitarist or bassist to join his backup band, the Hawks. Robertson couldn’t tell American immigration that he was entering the United States looking for a job, so the teen rocker said he was going to visit his brother in Arkansas. Robertson was an only child.
Robertson, who died on Wednesday at age 80, was a giant of American popular culture, known for his work in the Band, the legendary powerhouse group of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as his collaborations with titans like Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese (who directed the celebrated 1978 documentary The Last Waltz about the final performance of original iteration of the Band).
The New York Times captured something of the paradox of Robertson’s career in an obituary that gave him this epitaph: “Canadian Songwriter Captured American Spirit.” The newspaper further described Robertson as “chief composer and lead guitarist for the Band, whose work offered a rustic vision of America that seemed at once mythic and authentic, in the process helping to inspire the genre that came to be known as Americana.” But Robertson wasn’t just a Canadian who helped create Americana. He was able to creatively synthesize multiple musical traditions because he tapped into roots that predated all the borders on the map.
Crossing borders, by hook or by crook, was part of Robertson’s inherence. His mother was Cayuga and Mohawk. The Indigenous nations of the Western Hemisphere are far older than the national boundaries created by European settler colonialism. Under the terms of Jay’s Treaty (1794), the Indigenous are allowed to traverse the Canada/US border freely. This permission didn’t apply to Robertson, however, because, under the terms of Canada’s Indian Act (1876), his mother lost Indigenous status when she married a white man. The gender bias in the Indian Act, only incompletely reformed in recent decades, continues to be challenged by First Nations activists. Robertson himself had his lost Indian status restored in 2017.
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Although the Canadian government didn’t recognize Robertson as Indigenous for most of his life, he felt keenly his Cayuga and Mohawk identity. This was a matter of not just his genealogy but also his lived cultural inheritance. During his childhood, Robertson frequently visited the Six Nations of the Grand River reservation outside of Toronto, the birthplace of his mother and still the home of their large extended family. It was at Six Nations, while still a child, that Robertson first acquired his passion for the submerged musical traditions of North America. Robertson told the podcast host Marc Maron in 2017, “It seemed to me that everybody [on the reservation] played music, sang or danced. I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ Some played traditional music. They’d be playing Iroquois water drums, or somebody would have a violin with string missing, or a homemade mandolin or a guitar…. I thought, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
If Robertson was Indigenous on his mother’s side, his paternal lineage was more tangled. At age 12, as his parents were divorcing, Robertson learned from his mother that his biological father was a man who died before he was born in 1943, a Jewish-American gambler named David Klegerman. Robertson’s mother introduced Robertson to Klegerman’s surviving brothers, somewhat disreputable figures who nonetheless became substitute fathers.
This blended family and ambiguous parentage, as well as the fact of being an only child, fed into Robertson’s defining traits: his proclivity toward cultural fusion and his lifelong tendency to turn collaborators into fictive kin, creating an array of adoptive fathers and artistic brothers.
The passion for music ignited on the Six Nations reservation fueled his love of vernacular music of all sorts, starting with rock and roll. He was an impressive guitar player even as a teen and a virtuoso by his 20s. He joined his first band at age 13, opened for Hawkins at age 15, and soon wrote two songs that the rockabilly star recorded in 1959. This explains why Hawkins was willing to hire Robertson, first as a bassist and then as a guitarist, at age 16.
Hawkins was a spiritual father, and his mentorship led Robertson into what in his memoir Testimony (2016) he called the “great mystery” of the Mississippi Delta—the wellspring of American popular music. What he first experienced at Six Nations, Robertson found again among the poor Blacks and whites who created the blues, country music, and rock: marginalized and impoverished people who possessed vibrant, living musical traditions.
By joining the Hawks, Robertson was getting in on a coalescing group. The Hawks already included Levon Helm, a son of the Mississippi Delta whose mastery of rustic musical traditions grounded the group. The band soon acquired three new members who were, like Robertson, Canadians: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Although initially a backup band, the Hawks were in fact the embryonic form of the Band.
By 1963, they had enough of a cohesive identity to split from Hawkins. Rooted in rockabilly, the Hawks were open to musical influences of all sorts: country, soul, the blues. Robertson told Maron, “From all those years we’ve been out there playing the chitlin’ circuit down south and playing everywhere, we were picking up all those musicalities by the side of the road.”
Robertson befriended Bob Dylan in 1965, which added a folk dimension to the list of “musicalities.” With his controversial playing of an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan was already moving beyond the folk tradition toward rock and roll. He recruited the Hawks to be his backup band for a tour that ran through 1965 and ’66. Enraged folk music enthusiasts heckled and catcalled the group every time they performed with Dylan. As Robertson recalled, “We got booed all over North America, Australia, Europe and people were saying this isn’t working, and we kept on and Bob didn’t budge.”
The controversy might seem bizarre from the vantage of 2023, but it was animated by conflicting visions of music. Folkies were guided by an ideology of purism that saw any blending of musical forms as a fall from an ideal. Dylan and the Hawks were heading in the opposite direction, excited by the possibilities of cultural fusion.
Dylan introduced the Hawks to the literary richness and political urgency of folk lyrics while the Hawks infused Dylan with rockabilly energy. History would vindicate the musicians over Dylan’s stuck-in-the-mud fans. Cultural fusion transformed popular music and generated a new folk tradition of Americana that was based not on antiquarianism but revitalization. True tradition relies not on the mimicking of dead forms but constant creative appropriation of the past.
By 1967, the Hawks had relaunched themselves as the Band. Following Dylan, they moved to Woodstock, N.Y. In the basement of a pink house in nearby West Saugerties, the Band started their major work. With Dylan, they recorded The Basement Tapes, improvisational work that at first circulated only by bootleg, achieving official release in 1975. Even while it existed only in illicit samizdat form, the music was widely influential. Working apart from Dylan, the Band recorded their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968), a landmark of Americana.
The remarkable achievement of the Band was to do music that sounded weathered, earthy, and time-tested—but also fresh. Describing this new sound, Bruce Springsteen in 2020 said, “It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there.” The music critic Greil Marcus made a similar point in a 2004 essay in Threepenny Review. Commenting on the song “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” Marcus notes, “The music sounds old, but in the way a landscape can feel old; in the same way that a landscape promises it will renew itself, the music points to the future.”
In that same essay, Marcus evokes another singular fact about the Band: how they formed a cohesive whole even as each member had a distinct identity. At their best, the Band was truly the most communal of groups, a miraculous fusion of individual talent ambiently and playfully aware of each other’s work as they created a common sound.
Marcus writes, “It doesn’t seem real, how a bounce off of Danko’s bass falls into a cymbal smash as if nothing like it had ever happened before, the way the sounds from Hudson’s organ seem to slither around everyone’s feet, forcing them to jump as they reach for the next change, the rhythm section—whatever instruments it’s made of at any given moment—seemingly running on its own track, Robertson playing here as if he’s one person and there as if he’s someone else, each musician trusting that the others know him better than he knows himself, so that when it feels as if the music is a Ferris wheel spinning too fast not to break free and roll straight out of the carnival, the music can always call it back, just like that.”
The golden age of the Band, bookended by the years 1967 and 1973, was brief. They continued to do good music afterward, but drug abuse and conflicting ambitions frayed the bonds of trust that were essential to their achievements. By 1976, Robertson had decided to call it quits. The group had one final glorious hurrah that year in a Thanksgiving Day concert in San Francisco—the “Last Waltz.” where they were joined by a musical pantheon that both inspired them and took inspiration from them: among others, Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, and of course Dylan. Immortalized in Scorsese’s documentary, the evening was a high point in the history of popular music.
The Band reformed in 1983, but without Robertson. In an interview that serves as a grace note for Scorsese’s documentary, Robertson reflected on his deeply divided feelings about life as a road musician: “The road was our school. It gave us a sense of survival. It taught us all we know. There’s not much that we can really take from the road. We’ve had our share…. You can press your luck. The road has taken a lot of the great ones. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. Janis. Jimmy Hendrix. Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.”
Alas, his break with the Band soured Robertson’s relationship with the collaborators he had regarded as brothers. Helm in particular repeatedly accused Robertson of self-aggrandizement and overstating his contribution. These controversies are best addressed by remembering that even more than most artistic collaborations, the Band was truly synergistic. None of the five could create work in any other combination that quite reached the heights of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Robertson reflected on the painful break in his 2019 song “Once Were Brothers”: “Once were brothers / Brothers no more / We lost our way / After the war / There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no encore.”
Robertson had a productive career after the Band as a solo artist, a producer, and a collaborator with Martin Scorsese on film scores.
“Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work.… The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.… There is never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”
To be mourned in such terms by Dylan and Scorsese is to have lived a life of good purpose.
Among Robertson’s last works is a final collaboration with Scorsese on his upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon, about the murders of the Osage people in the 1920s. Robertson ended by going back to the beginning, returning to his Indigenous roots.