It’s oddly fitting that one of the most influential figures in the evolution of what we now refer to as Americana music was actually born in Toronto, Canada, to a Native American mother and a Jewish father.

Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson, who died at the age of 80 on Aug. 9, is a towering figure in American music, precisely because his own heritage and personal journey is redolent of the broadly variegated influences that comprise North American culture and song.

Music from Big Pink cover

We know the general arc of the Robertson story by now – schooled on the rock ’n’ roll road under the tutelage of Ronnie Hawkins, emerging as a confidante of Bob Dylan’s, further road-hardened alongside his cohorts as one of the backing musicians for Bob-the-Bard’s first-ever electric tour, and riding the road until it ended at a big, ugly pink house in rural Saugerties, N.Y., there to craft some of the most meaningful music of that (or any) era, somewhat miraculously becoming a major commercial force in the process.

But The Band – Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, musical geniuses all – was ultimately a hell-bound bus cruising with wheels ablaze, and Robertson, it seems, was the only member on speaking terms with the notion of relative sobriety, and so he (probably wisely) pulled the bus over and parked it for good outside of Winterland in 1976, where he and his bandmates danced their Last Waltz. That incredible catalog of songs, most of them penned by Robertson, came at a great personal cost.

Surely, part of the reason for the outpouring of grief over Robertson’s death from a music-loving public that more than likely never met the man is the realization that something major has been lost – something that felt a bit innocent, pastoral, and distinctly American in its willful alchemy of the blues and country music. There’s a union implicit in this marriage of Black American blues and the country and folk that is often credited to caucasians, a glimpse of what is possible when our diversity is embraced, our differences celebrated and our collective potential reimagined. Robertson managed to capture this in song, without ever needing to state it explicitly.

The Band is only part of the story, however.

The background image on Robbie Robertson’s first solo album was a photo of Buffalo’s Central Terminal.

One could make the argument that Robertson was only really getting started when The Band broke up, that his life’s most meaningful work lay ahead of him, when he attempted to close the circle, embracing his Native American heritage and marrying it to a sound that was both modern and ancient, a film-like hybrid that was indeed analogous to the commingling of Southern blues and rural country that birthed his work with The Band.

That new hybrid was first glimpsed when Robertson released his debut solo album, in 1987. Produced by Daniel Lanois, and benefitting from cameos by the likes of Peter Gabriel and U2, that self-titled album brought Robertson’s penchant for the southern and the gothic squarely into the then-present era. With Lanois, Robertson crafted an album that sounded like the next step in The Band’s evolution, though no full reunion with his bandmates was ever really in the cards. The New Orleans-themed “Storyville” welcomed Robertson to the ’90s, and much as “Music From Big Pink” had decades earlier, stood in stark contrast to the prevailing sounds of the day, its loamy funkiness and achingly melancholic melodies sounding as if they’d been beamed in from another time, straight into the age of grunge and hip-hop’s nascent rise.

Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble: Music for the Native Americans

Robertson finally fully embraced the heritage he’d observed as a child on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario with the release of 1994’s “Music for The Native Americans,” which was much more than the titular soundtrack for a television film – it was in many ways Robertson’s masterpiece, a new view of Americana that included the cultural and philosophical contributions of the very first Americans.

Nothing from “Music for The Native Americans” or it’s funky, techno-infused follow-up, “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy,” ever made the commercial or cultural impact of, say, “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Up On Cripple Creek.” But if you’ve never spent time with Robertson’s best solo work, I’d urge you to do so. Within it, you’ll find the true celebratory, inclusive spirit of Americana.

Jeff Miers
SAM Foundation executive director

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