Robbie Robertson in 1969

David Attie/Getty Images

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Robbie Robertson Was Everyman

How a Canadian-Jewish-Mohawk Indian became the voice of poor white Americana

Geoffrey Clarfield
August 16, 2023
Robbie Robertson in 1969

David Attie/Getty Images

Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson, the guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band, died on Aug. 9, 2023. He was 80 years old.

Robertson was born in my hometown of Toronto, raised by a mother from Canada’s Mohawk First Nation and an Anglo-Canadian father, both of them working class. They separated when he was a teenager, at which point his mother revealed that his father was not really his father. His biological father had been a Jewish gambling man but had died by the time Robbie learned of him, and his mother felt it was somehow important that Robbie finally meet his father’s brother and sister.

This is the stuff of mythology. An Orpheus-like hero who is born poor, is separated from his father, and then finds out that his father is not really his father. A boy who becomes a young man, who looks “white” but is half “Indian,” experiences some of the deep prejudices of Canadian society against native peoples at the time, and then learns about American Roots music from his kin on a reservation.

A boy whose ear is close to the radio in the ’50s and early ’60s and gets his start playing blues, rhythm and blues, rock, rockabilly, and country in the burgeoning clubs of Toronto during the 1960s. He then meets up with two of the most unlikely outsiders that Toronto has ever hosted, rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins and drummer Levon Helm, both from Arkansas.

In retrospect one can say that Robertson’s acquaintance with these two American Southerners was the point when his hero’s journey started in earnest. Helm and Hawkins saw the brilliance in the young Canadian’s playing and took him in as one of their own. This led to travel and work south of the border, then to his key role in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The Hawks then became the backing band for Bob Dylan before parting ways with Dylan and changing their name to The Band. It was as the lead guitarist and main songwriter for The Band that Robertson truly flourished.

When The Band finally dissolved in 1977, Robertson became interested in film, eventually achieving a creative symbiosis with filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who directed the documentary of The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Robertson, who sourced and underscored the music for many of Scorsese’s most famous films, once said, “He is a frustrated musician, and I guess I was a frustrated filmmaker.”

As a young singer and guitarist growing up in Toronto during the ’60s, I was affected by much of the same music that influenced Robertson—rock, rockabilly, country, and blues, most of it coming off the local radio and those stations we could get from the USA.

At the family cottage during summers, I heard country-and-western stations, and then late at night, wandering signals from south of the border, I heard preachers, banjo players, and balladeers. They all sang with deep Southern accents.

Their stories of love and loss, of war and peace, of wandering and religious torment, were so different from the staid Anglo-Canadian culture that our elites tried, unsuccessfully, to interest us baby boomers with. And this strange American sound “captured our souls.”

Toronto was on the U.S. concert circuit, so in addition to buying many albums of traditional and pop music coming from below the border, I managed to see some of these roots musicians live. I sat on a bench with Elizabeth Cotton, watched Junior Wells play the blues as well as Buddy Guy, and heard Woody Guthrie’s ballads performed by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and then saw Jesse Winchester—a Southern singer-songwriter, draft dodger come north, and discovery of Robertson himself—play at clubs in Toronto.

I was too young to see Ronnie Hawkins and his Hawks, because the club they played at had a liquor license. But the moment he and the Hawks gave an outdoor performance I was there. A bit of weird America creeped in when a young girl jumped on stage and danced topless. The local police did not intervene.

I saw The Band perform at two venues in Toronto and bought the first four Band albums. I must have listened to them hundreds of times. Many years later, after being trained as an ethnomusicologist, I read an entire book about The Band. I learned a lot about their comings and goings, their struggle to make it, their struggle with drugs, women, and mental health, and how each one handled the “bitch goddess of success.” I learned little about the actual music and song writing. One member of The Band, keyboardist Richard Manuel, later committed suicide.

I have not listened to Robertson’s complete oeuvre and have only seen some of his films, but I can say with some confidence that all his songs are about simple people, poor men, the “everyman” of the Anglo-American ballad and blues tradition. These songs and stories were first collected and shared with the public on discs by my actual and symbolic mentors, women like Edith Fowke, Harry Smith, and Alan Lomax (for whose archive I remain a consultant and adviser).

Robertson’s songs are all about outsiders and common men in the spirit of what was once called the ballad tradition of the poor whites of the Americas, before that sociological term became politicized—the “salt of the earth” whose ancestors brought the vernacular song and poetry of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to the New World, where it mixed and matched with African American gospel, blues, and work songs, creating the musical signature that is now called American roots music. Robertson, along with Bob Dylan and a very few others, was one of its modern masters.

Take Robertson’s most famous song, “The Weight,” from The Band’s 1968 album Music from Big Pink. “The Weight” is a surreal lyric that seems to be about an everyman, perhaps a traveling salesman or maybe even a seller of snake oil, who meets characters with biblical names such as Luke and Miss Moses. Notice the atypical mention of Judgement Day in what became a hit song, a deep theme of Southern Baptist teaching. The weight (of sin?) hints at redemption but there is no guarantee:

Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day
Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?
He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company?”

And then, as in so many Southern songs, the devil shows up:

I picked up my bag, I went lookin’ for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side
I said, “Hey, Carmen, come on let’s go downtown”
She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”

Another Robertson standout is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from The Band’s second album. The song is sung from the perspective of Virgil Cane, a loyal man of the South at the end of the Civil War. It’s framed as a kind of protest song by the poor whites of the South, describing how the Confederate elite retreated by train and took their wealth with them, leaving the poor soldiers to defend their homes and families from the coming onslaught of the carpetbaggers.

Here is the key verse. You can almost see the train with its Confederate bureaucrats in their London suits with their Confederate gold in closed boxes, looking for a place to hide:

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best

This is followed on the album by the song “The Unfaithful Servant,” a vague lament from a farm or plantation owner who regrets that a long-trusted servant has “git up and gone.” Was it a former slave who was liberated by Lincoln, or a slave that stayed after the war in the employ of his former master and finally headed north, or a poor white farmhand who had had enough and was off to California? We do not know, and it is not important.

Unfaithful servant, I hear you leaving soon in the morning
What did you do to the lady, that she’s gonna have to send you away?
Unfaithful servant, you don’t have to say you’re sorry,
If you done it just for the spite, or did ya do it just for the glory?

Then there are the laments for the good old times before the Civil “Whoa,” as it is pronounced in the South. This is the kind of nostalgia that comes from reading Faulkner and turning it into a song lyric, where the rocking chair on the porch signifies a sense of place and belonging—something that Robertson, who belonged nowhere and everywhere, could express with so much longing:

Oh, to be home again
Down in old Virginny
With my very best friend
They call him Ragtime Willie
I can’t wait to sniff that air
Dip’n snuff, I won’t have no care
That big rockin’ chair won’t go nowhere

In the song “Acadian Driftwood,” Robertson also tells the story of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada’s Maritime provinces, expelled by the British after the French and Indian War, and exiled to the swamps of Louisiana, where they gave birth to the enduring Cajun culture of the Gulf Coast.

Roberston was also sensitive to the perils of performing endlessly to please an audience. During his heyday the danger came primarily from drugs, but alcoholism has always been a temptation for performers, as expressed in the song “Stage Fright.”

I’ve got fire water right on my breath
And the doctor warned me I might catch a death
Said, “You can make it in your disguise
Just never show the fear that’s in your eyes”

See the man with the stage fright
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might
And he got caught in the spotlight
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again

When The Band broke up, Roberston formed a band of Indigenous musicians and gave much of his time and effort to rendering the feelings of his kin, the First Nations of North America. At that point, he symbolically came full circle.

Once, when still full-time at the Alan Lomax Archive in New York City, I offered to set up a booth at one of the earlier Americana conferences/concert series in Nashville. When I asked the young intern to describe the conference and its activities, she answered (with a fine Tennessee twang), “Oh Mister Clarfield, did you ever see the Robbie Robertson and The Band film The Last Waltz?” “Yes,” I said. “I am quite familiar with it.” “Well,” she went on, “We are trying to do that here on an annual basis.”

It would never have happened if it wasn’t for a poor boy from Toronto who could evoke the ups and downs and the ins and outs of the poor folk who settled and built this continent. Every man and every woman who holds this tradition dear to heart, must be grateful that God put Robbie Robertson on this good earth. He was every man (and woman’s) Everyman.

Geoffrey Clarfield is a Toronto-based musician and anthropologist.

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