John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Why Robbie Robertson’s Music Endures

The Band’s leader wrote American classics that might just be what we need now.

By - Dec 1st, 2016 05:14 pm
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It would be easy for this column to drift from S.O.S. (Sieger On Songs) to S.O.B.S. (Sieger On Band Songs). I’m knee deep in Robbie Robertson’s excellent memoir, staying up late because it’s so damn hard to put down. He writes books (no co-writer listed, so I’ll assume) as well as he writes songs — and he wrote “The Weight.” This group meant everything to me at a certain point in my development and I certainly have tried to emulate them here and there. It’s funny to think you can spend a whole lifetime trying to achieve what some artists in their twenties did with such ease.

But it’s not easy when you think about it. Robertson left Toronto to play with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks at sixteen. At 20 he was a seasoned veteran who had been in a guitar duel with the Master of the Telecaster, Roy Buchanan, and won. A couple years later he was Bob Dylan’s guitarist, playing on the tumultuous tour that signaled his break from folk music. Stuff was thrown, names were called, but it only deepened their resolve.

When the smoke cleared they were in upstate New York in a house dubbed Big Pink, jamming during the day and crashing cars at night. The mythic elements in Robertson’s music make perfect sense when you trace his path. Half Mohawk and half Jewish, he had family on the res and the streets of Toronto. He saw it all in Arkansas, where the very savvy pair of Hawkins and his muse, Levon Helm showed him the tricks of the trade.

On the wistful dark end of November, as we ease into December and the end of year that feels more like a loss than a victory, the half somber, half lively second album by The Band works it’s way back into my head. The book hints at, but doesn’t explain, how a 24 year old kid could dredge up the kind of songs heard on this record. “King Harvest Has Surely Come,” “Lookout Cleveland,” “Jemima Surrender?” The titles alone boggle the mind. His masterpiece will always be “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s Rock’s “Grapes Of Wrath.” Had he kept this level of production up a for a decade or two it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him getting the nod from the Nobel committee.

He also wrote a timeless song that could stand as a post-2016 election blues: “Across The Great Divide.” Yes, the country is divided, but this song is more placebo than bitter pill. A romp across the Rockies and who knows what else? Let’s look at the lyrics for a clue.

Standin’ by your window in pain
A pistol in your hand
And I beg you, dear Molly, girl
Try and understand your man the best you can

Across the great divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the river side

I had a goal in my younger days
I nearly wrote my will
But I changed my mind for the better
I’m at the still, had my fill and I’m fit to kill

Across the great divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the river side

Pinball machine, and a queen
I nearly took a bust
Tried to keep my hands to myself, ya say it’s a must
But who can ya trust

Harvest moon shinin’ down from the sky
A weary sign for all
I’m gonna leave this one horse town
Had t’ stall till the fall, now I’m gonna crawl!

Across the great divide…

Now Molly dear, don’t ya shed a tear
Your time will surely come
You’ll feed your man chicken ev’ry Sunday
Now tell me, hon, what-cha done with the gun

Across the great divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the river side

© Robbie Robertson

Here’s what we can gather from these lyrics. These guys had been holed up in a basement for a long time and studied America’s greatest surrealist, Bob Dylan, up close. Linear sense at that time was less important than getting your nonsense just right. I love a gun totin’ gal in a song because it’s a song and not real. I did read that, early on, The Hawks had shopped at a gun boutique in Arkansas, nearly emptying the place. Well, you play the places they did and your position on the 2nd Amendment might evolve a little, too. All in all, it’s good fun with plenty of dazzling internal rhyme.

In these sour times, some sweetness is called for. The incoming emperor will have massive powers. But he will never be able to suck the enjoyment out of this or any of our country’s great music. I should probably mention our lovely neighbor to the north, because four of these guys were Canadian. Being Canucks might have given them just enough perspective on the rolling tide of American history to get it right. We need that same perspective so someday we might be able to look back at this disturbing eruption of hate and laugh. If we’re not crying.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Why Robbie Robertson’s Music Endures”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    “But who can ya trust” – ! Thanks for turning me on to Robertson’s The Weight, which I’ll certainly find and read!

  2. Ken Wald says:

    I can listen to the music of the Band repeatedly. Like all of the soulful singalong 60s tunes I tirelessly sung out during my youth, the Band’s melodic bursts of song are never too much for repeated play. I have several favorites. But I came to greatly appreciate “King Harvest Has Surely Come” in the last decade of the Walker assault on Wisconsin workers as the most poignant and a one of the best rock n roll songs ever recorded. Funny, I don’t think I really noticed it when I was digging the other great tunes on that great self-titled LP. Not long ago probably in the early 90s without Robertson the Band played outdoors on the street for free at Bastille Day festival. Then the members began to pass away. I miss them so.

  3. Thomas says:

    Thanks, John, for reminding us of the wonders of Robbie Robertson’s lyrics and for printing some of them that pertain particularly to these times.

    I loved “The Weight” the first time I heard it, and I have turned up the car radio virtually every time I have heard it in that setting in the 40 odd years since I first heard it. I would appreciate your take on the narrative element of that song.

    P.S. You and other members of the R & B Cadets made a lot of people very happy at the reunion concert at Shank Hall on 11/25. You crushed that gig.

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