In the tapestry of popular culture, few figures stand as tall as Robbie Robertson. A man whose life story reads like a musical odyssey, Robertson’s journey to becoming a rock-and-roll icon is a testament to the power of heritage, innovation and artistic fusion. From his humble beginnings in Toronto to the heights he achieved as the chief songwriter and lead guitarist of the Band, Robertson’s impact will resonate long after his death at 80 on August 9.
Born on July 5, 1943, Jaime Royal Robertson’s early life was coloured by his mixed heritage. With a Cayuga and Mohawk mother and a Jewish-American gambler as his biological father, Robertson’s cultural blend was evident from the start. He found solace and inspiration in the music he heard visiting family on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, where traditional melodies ignited his passion for vernacular sounds.
A chance encounter with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins changed the course of music history. At the age of 16, Robertson crossed borders both physical and artistic as he joined Hawkins’ backup band, the Hawks.
Robertson joined forces with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. This collaboration exposed him to folk music and pushed the boundaries of his creative expression. The melding of Dylan’s folk lyricism with the Hawks’ rockabilly energy was met with both praise and resistance.
The Band continued to push boundaries in albums like Music from Big Pink (1968). Blending rock, country, soul and blues, the Band’s music earned them a dedicated following. Robertson’s intricate guitar work and poetic songwriting contributed to their distinctive sound, encapsulating the essence of Americana in a way that was mythic and authentic.
Robertson’s Indigenous roots remained a defining aspect of his identity, despite the discrimination he faced. It was his mother who imparted a lesson that would guide his life: to share his heritage with strangers, for in doing so, he could help forge connections and shatter preconceived notions.
The Band’s golden era, from 1967 to 1977, was marked by creative exploration and the formation of a unique musical brotherhood. However, internal conflicts and external pressures eventually led to the group’s break-up. Robertson’s legacy extended far beyond, however, as a solo artist, producer and film score collaborator. His partnerships with directors like Martin Scorsese bore witness to his enduring influence.
Robertson’s music inspired countless artists and musicians, shaping the landscape of rock and roll. The Band’s farewell concert, documented in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, brought together a pantheon of musical legends in celebration of a shared artistic journey.
As news of Robertson’s passing spread, tributes poured in from fellow musicians, friends and collaborators. Bob Dylan, a lifelong friend, acknowledged Robertson’s impact on his life and work. Scorsese, with whom Robertson shared a deep bond, spoke of the musician’s ability to evoke the continent’s traditions and tragedies through his music.
Even as he reached the twilight of his life, Robertson’s creative spark never dimmed. His collaboration with Scorsese on the upcoming film. Killers of the Flower Moon, centred around the Osage people’s tragic history, showcased his commitment to storytelling and cultural preservation. His return to his Indigenous roots, both musically and personally, was a fitting culmination of a life lived at the crossroads of heritage and innovation.