Robbie Robertson - Biography

By J Poet

Robbie Robertson is a Native American artist from Canada best known for this work with The Band, both with and without Bob Dylan. During his tenure with The Band, Robertson was known as the Canadian with the uncanny ability to capture the insane freedom and loneliness that lies in the heart of America.  Was this ability due to the fact that Robertson was Native, with an outsider's ability to see things more clearly from his slightly detached point of view? It’s hard to say for sure, but since the break up of The Band, Robertson has been searching for a way to integrate his native traditions into his music.


Robertson’ pre-Band collaboration with Bob Dylan in 1965 helped invent folk rock. His work with The Band, including classic tunes like “Chest Fever” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” introduced people to a timeless brand of music making that's recently been enshrined on commercial radio as Americana, but had no name when The Band was jamming in Big Pink during the summer of 1968.  More recently, his soundtrack for the Turner Networks Music for The Native Americans (1994 Capital and billed as The Red Road Ensemble) made America listen to the music of Native people, both traditional and contemporary, with more appreciative ears. Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy (1998 Capital) his first solo album with a Native slant, is a set of songs that combined hip-hop grooves with Native beats and his well established rock’n’roll sensibility.


Robertson’s collaborators on the album include Jim Wilson, The Six Nations Singers, techno groove master Howie B, Tudjaat, a duo of throat singers from Canada, peyote singers Primeaux and Mike and Native activist Leonard Peltier. Like most of Robertson’s music, Red Boy has a timeless feel and an uplifting spirit, but there’s also a lot of anger, an emotion that clashes with the mellow image Robertson has maintained over the years.  The only racist term Robertson recalls was “red boy, ” a childhood taunt and the memory of that incident is the album’s touchstone.


Robertson's résumé reads like a history of 20th Century American music.  Guitarist for Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, one of the world's best (if most underrated) rockabilly bands; leader of Bob Dylan's first rock and roll crew, the quintet that mutated into The Band - inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and composer of the soundtrack for The Native Americans, a six hour documentary for the Turner Network that recounts the history of the American West through the eyes of Indian people.    


The Native Americans is the first part of an ambitious project by the Turner Broadcasting Company to present a Native vision of American history to a wide mainstream audience. Robertson was given complete creative control over the music, selecting pieces from different regions and nations. The documentary is broken up by region, so he chose music that was true to the geographical area, and flavored it with various contemporary Native artists, so the people watching would have material that wouldn't be to foreign to their ears. Robertson collaborated with Native artists like Jim Wilson of the Little Wolf Band, Walela, Douglas Spotted Eagle and Kashtin, a Native folk rock duo from the Innu Nation of Canada to challenge people's stereotypical ideas of Native music.


Since leaving The Band Robertson also cut two non-Native singer/ songwriter rock albums. Robbie Robertson (1987 Geffen) came 11 years after the break up of The Band, and includes a collaboration with U2 on the song “Sweet Fire of Love.” Storyville (1991 Geffen) a set that ‘s steeped in the rhythms of New Orleans with guest artists that include The Neville Brothers, members of The Meters, The Rebirth Brass Band, Robert “Kool” Bell and Warren Bell of Kool and The Gang, Bruce Hornsby and Band compatriot Garth Hudson. In 2011 he released How To Become Clairvoyant- his first collection of new material in 13 years.



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