You don’t live to be a songwriter my age without collecting a very long list of influences. It’s often said that good writers borrow while great writers steal. I’m not saying I’m great, but in this context, “influences” is really just a fancy word meaning the songwriters I’ve stolen from. It’s a full-time job because there are so many tunesmiths out there and so little time …
To this day I enjoy discovering writers I’ve never heard before. These can be musical predecessors whose work never made it onto my radar for whatever reason, or it can be an author young enough to be my child. When an artist’s music resonates with me I tend to want to hear more of it. As habits go, it’s manageable, but the craving is undeniable.
Through his work with the Band, Robbie Robertson was an early and powerful influence on me. By the time I happened upon a copy of Music From Big Pink in my eldest sister’s record collection, I was already a big fan of the Beatles—even though they had broken up by the time I was old enough to truly appreciate their music, around the age of 8 or 9. And I knew that Lennon and McCartney were the members who wrote so many of their catchiest, early hits. They were so earnest, melodic and energetic.
If I listen to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” today, I still feel the invigorating enthusiasm of youth. I understood then how a simple declaration of affection contained in the phrase “I want to hold your hand” is fraught with the risk of rejection.
In this pre-teenage boy’s heart and mind, it was a bold thing to say out loud to someone. It still is, I suppose. So to hear the phrase sung with such fearless conviction and for that sentiment to be met with hysterical screams of approval from seemingly every member of the opposite sex — let’s just say I recognized early on that songs contained powerful magic. I wanted to learn how to practice this mysterious art.
And of course one of the other top songwriting practitioners of that (or any) time was Bob Dylan. Alas, Bob wasn’t as catchy as the Beatles were. There was a copy of his first album in the house, and it included just two originals. “Song to Woody” is Dylan’s tribute to his folksinging hero, whom Dylan used to visit in the hospital toward the end Guthrie’s life. It was a song that moved me, but in an entirely different way than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had done.
This wasn’t kid stuff. These were the sentiments of a young man recognizing life’s complexities, hardships, loneliness, challenges and disappointments. And the music was spare and stark, performed alone with a guitar and harmonica, as a traveling hobo musician would do.
It was not the same kind of music that provoked teenage girls to scream and faint. It was more of a complex, acquired taste. And as I came to discover the messages in Dylan’s protest songs that had become part of the civil rights and anti-war movements, I saw how this music resonated with a slightly different audience.
In my teenage brain I felt I’d made an important distinction: Whereas Beatlemania was an affliction experienced by teens, THIS music often found a host and spread among college-aged girls who burned patchouli incense and other things. So I determined that I needed to explore this field of devilry as well.
It was during my study of Dylan that I came to know about his relationship with The Band (before they were known as The Band) and how they’d been enlisted to serve as his backup musicians when he “went electric” on a tour of England that provoked howls of disapproval from purist folk music fans there.
These same outraged prudes invariably come off as hopelessly comical sticks-in-the-mud when viewed today in documentaries from the time. As much as I love him, I’d have to lump Pete Seeger in with that crowd. He told me himself in an interview that he didn’t like the electric Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival because the volume made it hard to understand the words. I don’t know that he was being totally honest. I mean, who threatens to take an axe to music cables because he’s afraid people can’t understand the words? Come on, Pete. It’s OK not to like rock and roll. Mitch Miller didn’t like it either. Just chill.
Change is often met with resistance, but it is inevitable. I feel that the popularity of rock and roll might perhaps have run its course by the late 1960s had there not been this cross-fertilization with the lyrical traditions of folk balladry. Once musical genres meet they often blend to produce a new sort of offspring. And the lyricism of the folkies might never have been heard beyond the boundaries of coffee shops and bookstores unless someone had had the guts to play it loud, on an electric guitar.
Meanwhile, those lovable moptops from Liverpool began maturing and releasing acoustic, folky tunes like “Michelle” and “Norwegian Wood.”
Looking back, I see this as more or less the route I took to arrive at my appreciation of Robbie Robertson. Schooled as a sideman for Ronnie Hawkins — an Arkansas native with 1950s rock and roll credentials — Robertson could soon switch between playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley licks at the drop of a guitar pick. While still a teen, he and his fellow bandmates in the Hawks had a front row seat to the very adult world of nightclubs and colorful characters that populate the life of a working musician.
(Editor’s note: Here’s a record by the Canadian Squires … The band before they were THE BAND)
As an artist, Robertson had the ability to absorb influences and translate them back into brand new songs that immediately sounded timeless. After working on tour as Dylan’s lead guitarist, he holed up in Woodstock and began producing his own songs. “It Makes No Difference,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “Ophelia,” “Stage Fright,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Life Is a Carnival” — these are early offerings recorded by The Band that afford an enjoyable introduction to his work.
He had what seems to have been an innate ability to embody the characters in his songs. How else could he, as a Canadian, have been able to compose something like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Yes, bandmate and Arkansas native Levon Helm may have served as a guide to understanding southern culture for Robertson, but Helm did not compose the piece.
I offer this song as an example specifically because it remains controversial today, over half a century after its composition. Was it an anthem celebrating the cause of the Confederacy? In a 2009 essay, noted author Ta-Nahisi Coates saw it as such, calling it “another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible.”
I agree with him. It is written from the point of view of a vanquished Confederate in the aftermath of the American Civil War. So yeah, the subject matter is as loaded as an 1853 Enfield patterned musket. (I just Googled that. I don’t know anything about Civil War weaponry. But by the looks of my search, there are a lot of folks out there who do.)
This Virgil Kane, the fictional character Robertson introduces as the song’s narrator in the first two words, is not exactly Pharaoh, though. We learn in the second line that he served on the Danville train — which was a railroad running south from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. This railroad was frequently blown to bits during the war.
The song is the testimony of this man whose 18-year-old brother was killed by a Yankee soldier. What still rings in his ears? The sound of all the people singing on the night they drove old Dixie down. The side his brother fought for. And just who are these people doing the singing? Confederates? Union soldiers? They were singing na, na, na, na…is it mocking? Is it celebratory? Is it both?
I’ve always heard the song as an allegorical indictment of war.
I think of it as a cautionary tale written in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. It is set against the backdrop of the death and destruction the United States had unleashed upon itself just one hundred years earlier, when it was also a deeply divided country.
Hearkening back to the Bible, Robertson deftly reinforces this brother versus brother, countryman versus countryman metaphor by naming his narrator Kane. Which sounds like Cain, phonetically. And then having that character crack wise that you can’t “raise a Kane” back up when he’s in defeat.
True pieces of art are often open to interpretation. So what do you make of a song like this, which was performed by a lefty like Joan Baez at Woodstock, but has also come to be embraced by racist believers in “The Cause”?
Because of all these controversial complexities, I think it’s fair to say that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a very adult song when contrasted with “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Yet it has been covered over seventy times since its original release over fifty years ago, on recordings by artists ranging from Lawrence Welk to Richie Havens.
Robertson’s contributions in the field of songwriting were rooted in his knack for beautiful melodies, his ear for dialogue and his talent for storytelling. These were all qualities he often credited to his youthful experiences hanging out with Native American relatives in Canada. I once saw an interview with him, recalling how he would sit as a young boy, enthralled by the stories the elders told, and how he wished to one day be like them.
He achieved that ambition and more. At times during his life he had been criticized for his financial success as a songwriter, especially when his former bandmates struggled with money problems. But it should be remembered that there is nothing stopping anyone from writing a song. And it’s also clear that Robertson worked hard at his craft, starting when he was young and continuing to practice it for the remainder of his life.
Popular music is a fickle business. To write songs that sell millions of copies over decades, while taking on grownup topics is no small feat. Anyone with a desire to practice this arcane art would do well to absorb all of the finely crafted songs Robertson has left behind.