Saturday, August 12, 2023

Robbie Robertson (1943-2023)

.... Musically, what he achieved with The Band dominates his legacy (though he composed many movie soundtracks later in life, including the one for 1980’s Raging Bull) and was a key subsequent influence on the alt-country genre. But poetically, what Robertson achieved — with such studied craft, imbued with such intelligence and lived empathy that it transcended imitation and became the authentic article — was to touch the purest soul of American myth and legend and bring it to life in his deceptively folksy lyrics and subtle music with such delicacy and preternatural grace that it is only fitting that this most American of songwriters (along with most of his bandmates) was Canadian. ....

The story of how Levon and the Hawks, gigging with little profile around Ontario, managed to become Bob Dylan’s backing band is itself the stuff of cosmic fortune. Dylan’s manager’s secretary (that’s thrice removed, mind you) happened to be from the Toronto area and familiar with the band, and her tip made its way to Dylan when he decided he wanted to go “electric” on tour and needed a working group. The rest is history: the stuff of rock legend, musical awe, and multiple award-winning documentaries (only one of which was directed by Martin Scorsese). The Hawks slowly transformed into The Band over the years 1965–1967; their association with Dylan during the freewheeling and controversial tours of his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde led to their constantly being referred to in press accounts as “the band” behind him....

The critical years spent under Dylan’s tutelage — the so called “Big Pink” era, named for the amusingly painted rural New York practice space that resulted in Dylan’s own legendary Basement Tapes, but which properly began in terms of songwriting and mutual influence during late 1966 — transformed Robertson. The artistic leap he took during this period is almost shocking: The man last seen writing such fare as “Uh Uh Uh” would reemerge in late 1967 after two years of steeping in Bob Dylan’s sensibility and the deepest reaches of the American folk songbook with songs like the Buñuel-influenced “The Weight.” ....

And “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the most stunning act of them all, so bracingly successful in its attempt to put you inside the shoes of The Other that I can still remember, as a kid, catching my breath conflictedly over the gut twinge of empathy I felt for people whose defeat was absolutely necessary. Robertson turned to his bandmate Helm (the only American in the group) for some tonal advice and then wrote a song about a no-name dirt-farming soldier from southwestern Virginia who fought for the Confederacy because that’s just the thing you did back then — for family, for honor, for your state — and lost, hard. At every step of the way through this song we know that he had to lose, that it was good and just and proper that the Confederacy and slavery were extinguished. And yet the crushing reality of actual loss — loss of family, loss of pride, loss of self-understanding or any sense of where you will fit in the world to come — is at the forefront. Which is precisely why, when Robertson — with Levon Helm singing his words as only a southerner could — gets to the chorus (“where all the people were singing”) it is a transcendent act of empathy. No words are needed, only a wordless wail, both lullabye and lament, and all for American history’s most deserved losers. .... (more)

Jeffrey Blehar, "Robbie Robertson 1943–2023: The Band’s Leader Finally Rests the Weight," National Review, August10, 2023.

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