On Aug. 9, we were celebrating my son’s birthday, and a friend sent me a message on my phone that Robbie Robertson had died. I was stunned.
Robbie and The Band had been in the forefront of my mind in that previous week. We were finalizing getting the new poster out for our production of “The Last Waltz” at Babeville. And just days before this, I started listening to a podcast called “The Band: A History” and I’d completed the six episodes on “The Last Waltz.”
Many of us are at an age where this will keep happening with increasing frequency. Outside of family and close friends, we develop a certain bond with our cultural heroes, and for me it’s musicians and songwriters much more than movie stars or other public figures. And the death of Robbie Robertson has hit me very hard, partially because it was so sudden, as the family seems to have kept his illness very private.
From the first time I heard Robbie’s stinging guitar sound and the stories presented by The Band, I was hooked. They were like nobody else in the late ’60s. Rock bands didn’t play and present themselves this way and it certainly wasn’t what you’d hear on country radio stations. These four Canadians and one American invented Americana, at least to me.
Robbie’s story is like a fairytale, a myth made up that couldn’t be real. A Jewish, Mohawk/Cayuga Canadian kid raised in Ontario, at 16, gets drafted into the Hawks and goes down to Arkansas with Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm. After years on the road, The Band becomes the backing band for Bob Dylan and gets booed all over the world in the Dylan goes electric controversy. And then holes up in Woodstock with Dylan, Levon, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to write those incredible songs and make that amazing music.
One of my favorite stories is Eric Clapton going to Woodstock and wanting to join The Band and asking about jamming with them. Clapton described their first encounter as a clash of two cultures; he was wearing bright bellbottoms and a frilly blouse, the uniform of the hippie era, and the band dressed like they had just come off the line in the factory.
“They were magnificent heroes for me,” Clapton said. “And so I went up to jam with them, I show up with all this paraphernalia on, the guys are all in work clothes, and I thought, ‘well, are we going to jam?’ They said, ‘We don’t jam, we write songs and play the songs.’ … I thought, my God, these guys are real serious.”
One of Robbie’s signature achievements in his life was the creation of “The Last Waltz.” Beyond all the drama about the ending of The Band, the “Last Waltz” movie from Martin Scorsese and the concert and soundtrack have stood the test of time. Nearly half a century later, it is universally considered one of the greatest live music documentaries ever.
After “The Last Waltz,” Robbie didn’t just slide into being a rock star on his own, he went into doing movie soundtracks and he never did go on the road much again in his later career.
It wasn’t until 10 years later when he finally released his first solo album, entitled “Robbie Robertson,” followed by “Storyville” a few years later. In 1994 he released the first of two albums reflecting his indigenous, native-Canadian heritage, “Music for the Native Americans,” with the Red Road Ensemble. In 1998 he released “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.” I mention these four albums specifically not because I’m trying to present a discography for Robbie, but because I think these albums are absolutely great in every sense of the word. Many of these songs rank with some of Robbie’s best writing for The Band.
I run into people all the time who are Robbie and The Band fans, and they’re only vaguely aware that these albums even exist. So, if you’re one of those people, I’m doing you a favor; check out “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” “Showdown at Big Sky,” “Fallen Angel,” “Night Parade,” “Soap Box Preacher,” “Ghost Dance,” “Skinwalker,” “Unbound,” “Rattlebone,” “In the Blood” and much more. Robbie released two more fine albums in recent years, 2011’s “How to Become Clairvoyant” and 2019’s “Sinematic. ” Robbie has continued his work in movies; he did the soundtrack for the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
It has been an honor and a labor of love to have been involved in producing Buffalo’s “Last Waltz” for the Sportsmen’s Americana Music Foundation since 2017. We’ve sold out the show every year and the incredible cast of Buffalo musicians does its very best to reenact the legendary concert from Thanksgiving 1976. On Nov. 17 we’ll once again present Buffalo’s Last Waltz,” this year as the Robbie Robertson Memorial edition.
Robbie had become increasingly involved over the years with his native heritage at the Six Nations of the Grand River. As a child he spent his summers there, and that’s where he learned to play guitar. Six Nations is the only reserve in North America where all six Haudenosaunee nations live together. Last year, Robbie was named chairperson of the committee to build a Woodland Cultural Centre. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the Robertson family has requested that donations be made to Woodland Cultural Centre (WCC), an organization that Robertson was passionate about.
Babeville and the SAM Foundation have teamed up to present a $1,000 donation to the Six Nations Woodland Cultural Centre. At our “Last Waltz,” we will have a donation box available for anyone who would like to join us and make a contribution. Our SAMF table will be set up downstairs in the 9th Ward this year.
Robbie joined the Hawks in 1960, traveling by train into the United States by going through Buffalo on his way to Arkansas, not the only time Buffalo figured into The Band’s history, including an image of the train station on his first solo album. Within a few years they were backing Bob Dylan and traveling the world. Robbie’s music has been with us one way or another for over 50 years. And 50 years from now, people will still be singing “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and many more. The SAM Foundation and the marvelous cast of Buffalo performers are looking forward to once again presenting Buffalo’s “The Last Waltz.”
As this issue of the JAM was coming together, we found out that we have lost a member of our local “Last Waltz” family. Our condolences to Jeff Nixon and the rest of the family of Joyce Wilson Nixon.
Joyce was one of the Staples Singers in the first three years of our production of Buffalo’s “The Last Waltz,” 2017-2019. It was a pleasure to get to know her, she was a very talented performer and a wonderful person. RIP, Joyce.
Robert J. McLennan