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Robbie Robertson – R.I.P.

Time passes, we all get older – and then we die.

Today I want to pay a small tribute to Robbie Robertson, the humble Canadian who played a fundamental role in the development of rock music through his association with Bob Dylan and others from the 1960s onwards and who passed on 9th August at the age of 80.

The music world’s tributes, newspaper obituaries and online encyclopedias have done due justice to Robertson with their detailed accounts of his career so today on The Rust I’m just going to add a few personal comments.

It’s difficult to convey to today’s young generations the extraordinary cultural impact of the advent of rock & roll in North America in the 1950s and then the decade afterwards, dominated as it was by The Beatles and the subsequent “British invasion” groups who – not without significant degrees of inspiration, inventiveness and verve of their own – effectively re-imported America’s rhythm & blues roots music back home to its origins, thereby helping to ignite the fusions that created what one might now describe as serious, grown up, rock music.

Like him or loathe him, there is no doubt that Bob Dylan stands as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century.

Beginning as a guitar-and-harmonica folkie with iconic status, he suddenly “went electric” and developed into a global superstar in the mid-1960s before breaking his neck in a motorbike accident aged 25 in July 1966.

He then disappeared from the public eye for a year in order to recover, during which time he teamed up with a group once called The Hawks, formerly the backing band to US rock & roll singer Ronnie Hawks who lived in Canada.

These musicians – including the guitarist, song-writer and singer Robbie Robertson – worked anonymously with Dylan as he composed and recorded demos of over 150 songs, many of which were later “gifted” to other artistes and/or recorded and issued by Dylan himself.

Later, calling themselves simply “The Band” they recorded their brilliant first album called Music From Big Pink, released in August 1968, which had several of their greatest songs on it including The Weight and Chest Fever.

Despite them doing to little to promote the album, cover versions of several of its songs were recorded by other artistes and it was a considerable success, which prompted me – then a 17 year old public schoolboy in the UK – to buy it.

It was therefore inevitable that I would buy their second album when it came out in the autumn of 1969 called, in keeping with their careful low-key approach, simply The Band.

It amounted to an enormous leap forward, partly because they had opted to write several of the songs on it from the viewpoint of 19th Century musicians at the time of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). It was what one might now describe as “American roots heritage music” and duly influenced thousands of following musicians worldwide.

The Band and Robbie Robertson did so much more in their heyday up to the late 1970s – as indeed did Robertson himself later in writing movie scores etc. and recording his occasional solo albums – but this morning I want to end this appreciation by linking Rusters to an extract from The Last Waltz (1978), the documentary movie made by Martin Scorsese around a “last ever concert” by The Band performed in front of an invited audience.

It featured Roberston’s classic song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written in the first-person narrative and bemoaning the hardship of life as a poor farmer in the Confederate-supporting American South as the American Civil War drew to its end. [“Dixie” was the nickname given to the States that made up the Confederate South]. Its tune, compelling lyrics and “feel” made it so very special.

Robbie Robertson – its composer – is the lead guitarist/backing singer centre stage in the footage and the lead vocal is performed by The Band’s drummer Levon Helm, who died aged 71 in 2012.





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About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts