John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Legacy of Robbie Robertson

He didn’t do it alone, but the songs he wrote for The Band are classics.

By - Sep 28th, 2023 01:18 pm
Robbie Robertson. Photo by John Mathew Smith &, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Robbie Robertson. Photo by John Mathew Smith &, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Stories about unlikable celebrities keep the internet buzzing and give people a dubious sense of certainty about someone they’ve never met. In Robbie Robertson’s case, who passed away in August, this phenomenon has made it difficult to write about a guy who was an incredibly gifted artist. Can you talk about the artist and not consider the person? It’s not like stories about Robertson approached the tawdry levels of Jerry Lee Lewis or Michael Jackson, it’s been more of a whispering campaign about ethical tests some feel he didn’t pass.

Most of the stories about him were set in stone when his bandmate and hillbilly muse Levon Helm took him to task in his memoir, accusing him of stealing royalties and claiming the songs were written by everyone in that seminal band, The Band. Robertson had his say when he wrote his own memoir.

The royalty story goes back to a time when Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel offered their publishing rights to Robertson to fund expensive heroin habits. This would have deprived them of their writer’s share and while it may seem exploitive, they probably would have sold them to someone else anyway. As for authorship, as much as Roberstson benefited from the group’s unique sound, he was alone with his guitar when these songs were born. This is not to say he was a wonderful guy. All I know is his work represents a high water mark for Rock & Roll, a genre that has known its share of unlikable geniuses, including his one-time boss, Bob Dylan, and it should be considered on its own merits.

So Robertson was complicated, but what he did wasn’t. He dropped a large dollop of authenticity into a music culture at a time when it was veering towards silly. Just look at the clothes bands were wearing in 1968. The rest of the rock world was tie-dyed and bell-bottomed and flouncy was the rule of the day. Much of the music was dressed up in post-Sergeant Pepper psychedelia. The Band, on the other hand, seemed to have ordered their threads from an early 20th century Sears catalog, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some of their songs being played back then. It may seem odd to accuse show biz of showing off, but The Band knew the difference between costumes and disguises. Their very existence called BS on a scene that was well supplied with it.

On their first record album, Music From Big Pink, Robertson and the three others I mentioned, along with the other-worldly talent, Garth Hudson, made history sound modern. They had done their homework in honky tonks from the South to Canada with Ronnie Hawkins, an artist with deep Arkansas roots, as their tour guide. As Levon put it, the places they played required you to “puke twice and show them your razor blade” to get in. Interesting surroundings teeming with characters you had to keep an eye on — is it any surprise they showed up in Robertson’s songs? “The Weight,” instantly a hit and a classic ever since, was a good example,

By the second album, The Band, an absolute milestone that’s easy to call the best of their careers, Robertson was dropping his characters all over the American landscape. The stories were period pieces, some set in something like the present day while others were timeless. Robertson reached all the way back to the Civil War, to tell the story of Virgil Caine in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” (video link below) a crushingly sad picture of a divided America, as relevant today as it was 50 plus years ago. The record was packed with gems like the rollicking “Rag Mama Rag” and the wistful “Whispering Pines.” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is another gritty throwback, this time to what seems to be The Great Depression. The singer (Manuel) is wondering what was so great about it — he’s lost his crops to drought, his barn to a fire and finally finds hope in the “Union.” Dark and spooky as its chorus (sung by Levon), it may be the best song on an album full of greatness.

There are plenty of hints to Robertson’s greatness. He was half Jewish and half Native American, but so were a lot of other folks. Raised mostly by his mother, he also had an uncle he visited in New York who, if he wasn’t a gangster, certainly ran with them. He left Toronto at the tender age of 16 when he was recruited by Ronnie Hawkins for his stinging and economical guitar work. Transported to Arkansas, he got a crash course in everything Greil Marcus called “Old Weird America.”

He was already writing songs before he and the rest of the group (minus Levon) were recruited to tour with Dylan, whose decision to go electric made taking the stage risky. He spent a lot of time with that mercurial legend on tour and after. He had to be studying him on the sly. In West Saugerties, New York The Band shared a house called Big Pink where they rehearsed with and without Dylan. It was a legendary laboratory, well documented in The Basement Tapes and it was there he started writing like a man possessed. A year or so later, he and his cohorts emerged and turned the world on its ear.

The genre now called Americana simply wouldn’t exist without The Band and Robertson’s songs. They laid the groundwork and reached a summit of artistry others can only aspire to. Given 50 years to do so, it’s high time for someone to join them up there — but don’t hold your breath.

Hearing is believing, and here are 10 songs that would make converts of just about anybody:

Strawberry Wine
Helm at his nasal-ly finest, co-written with Robbie.

Whispering Pines
More dream than song, Richard Manuel’s falsetto is a thing of beauty.

Rag Mama Rag
Just about the itchiest groove ever laid down — it’s just barely in control.

To Kingdom Come
The second song on their first album, but they already had me at Tears Of Rage.

Mystery Train
Did I mention Robertson was a vicious guitar player? The way he tears into this Junior Parker classic is just vicious and it also features a great double vocal from Levon and Paul Butterfield.

It Makes No Difference
Three things Robertson could do well, burn you with his guitar, lift you with a big chorus and turn a phrase: “And the dawn don’t rescue me no more…”

The Shape I’m In
Rick Danko at his best with snaky lead work from Robbie and funhouse organ from Garth.

Chest Fever
Strange, beautiful, rockin’ and, by the way — listen to 1999 by Prince and ask yourself if he might have heard this.

Somewhere Down The Crazy River
Robbie’s voice, rarely heard, is a smokey baritone narrating this noir-ish ballad, but he sings well on the chorus where he’s joined by Milwaukee’s own Sam Llanas.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Recently this one has been reconsidered and labeled unwoke by some. That’s just misguided and a little over-zealous. Listen and try not to be moved. There is no defense of racism or slavery to be found, just an admission there are humans suffering on both sides of any war. This song will outlast all of us.

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2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Legacy of Robbie Robertson”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:


    thanks for revealing some things I didn’t want to know about, but then more importantly for reminding us of the great songs by Robbie and his magical bandmates.

    Time to go and play some of those tunes again.

    Rag on mama.

  2. says:

    Thanks John. Great music outlives the foibles and flawed humanity of its authors. A great, great band.

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