The returning podcasters Simon and Brian interview a truly legendary Canadian songwriter, whose music with The Band helped create Americana…
The illustrious career of Robbie Robertson as a songwriter, musician, film composer and author has spanned just shy of six decades. An inductee of the Rock & Roll, Canadian Music and Canadian Songwriters Hall(s) of Fame and principal songwriter for The Band, one of the most influential rock groups of the 60s and 70s, he’s the man responsible for such timeless gems as The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek. In November 2016 he published his wonderful memoir, Testimony, a vivid account of his formative years and his time with The Band – delivered in style by a master storyteller.
Born in Toronto in 1943 and raised between Toronto and the Six Nations Reserve, Robertson took up the guitar aged 10 and played in various neighbourhood bands before joining up with the American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. He wrote his first songs for Hawkins in 1959 aged just 15 and eventually joined his backing band The Hawks, whose drummer was Levon Helm and eventually also included Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. By the mid-60s, The Hawks had struck out on their own and were recruited as the backing band for Bob Dylan’s ‘going electric’ tour. When Dylan was side-lined by a motorbike accident in 1966 Robbie and co. decamped to Woodstock to work with him on a series of sprawling sessions that eventually saw the official light of day as The Basement Tapes.
The Band continued under their own steam, resulting in their 1968 debut album and their eponymous second in 1969, widely credited with inventing the Americana genre. In 1975 they called a halt to their performing career, bringing the curtain down in style with one of the greatest concert films ever made, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. The Band called it quits shortly afterwards but Robertson continued to collaborate with Scorsese on soundtracks to a number of movies including Raging Bull, The Color of Money and Casino.
Robertson’s first/self-titled solo album came out in 1987, featuring contributions from U2 and Peter Gabriel and his most recent effort is the 2011 album How To Become Clairvoyant, his highest charting solo record to date.
Without further ado, here is Sodajerker’s chat with the estimable Robbie Robertson…
How has your songwriting process changed since those early days?
“You know the songwriting process always for me has never been a process that is predictable or that I understand really. From a very young age I learnt that you get it any way you can. Sometimes it is what you think it would be. You sit down at an instrument, I sit down at the piano or I sit down with a guitar or a keyboard or something, and I start messing around until something feels good. Then if something comes to mind, all of a sudden some words appear. That’s the obvious way and that happens on rare occasions… maybe a little bit more years ago than it does now. There are so many other ways to go about it as time goes on.
“So then the next most obvious way that it happens is that you find something musically that feels good, and this has been going along for a long time for me, that you feel something and it’s rhythmic and it can be on a drum machine or anything. You think ‘something about that just makes me want to do something, makes me want to explore some chord changes or some riffs.’ So you join in and you go along and then if you happen to find the beginning of a structure then you follow that path and you stay with it. Sometimes you’re doing it and it’s okay where you are but it doesn’t go anywhere, then you usually drift off and lose your attention span with it but where this is going is to build something musically, a foundation that you think ‘I can write something to this, I can write some words to this.’ It either feels good enough or the structure or the chord changes or something is inspiring enough…
“…Then there is all of the other ways, that you don’t know where any of this is coming from. Sometimes you just think of the title of a song and that’s enough of a clue to go on, sometimes you find three little notes that when you play them a certain way it just cries out to keep going, to keep doing that and then you’ll do something against that and that’s the origin of it. We could talk for hours about these origins, about these clues that set something off. So for me, the way it’s always been, is I just try to stay in this place of being receptive and being open, it’s always a bit of a game of trying to catch yourself off guard. Like you’re walking by the piano and you look at it through the side of your eye and all of a sudden you jump down and you start playing something and you don’t know what you’re going to play or why you’re going to play it, anything, you’re just hoping that you’ll trip over the right mistake…
“I don’t want to tell the muse that I’m going to write a song. I’m going to sneak up on her and surprise her and then maybe I won’t get stuck in that place of the usual, ‘we know what you’re going to try to do and we’re not going to give you any ideas, we’re just going to let you struggle and beat your head against the wall.’ That’s what we’re trying to avoid. So to this day and after all of these years, I love this process. You throw a hook in the water and you see if you can catch something.”
Your process sounds like it’s evolved over the years but you obviously had that ability from such an early age. The two songs you wrote for Ronnie Hawkins when you were 15, those skills must have been in place even then?
“I don’t know if it was skills, I think it might have been more of a hunger. Before I wrote those songs for Ronnie Hawkins I was like a lot of young guitar players. We would hear a record and we’d think ‘oh my God, that’s such a cool guitar part on that I’ve got to learn it.’ So we’d play that part on the record over and over again and we’d go over it on the guitar and we’d try to find it and we’d try to do it just the way we’re hearing it. Well for me, sometimes I would lose patience with it and I couldn’t quite do what the guy was doing so I would say ‘to heck with it, I’ll just make up my own.’ I would then go off and try to find something that it inspired me to do, and that was original but not because of originality but because of frustration and lacking some kind of skills. You do think ‘in time I’ll be able to master that,’ and sometimes I would be playing with another guitar guy and he’d figured it out and he would show it to me and that would be a shortcut, but in the meantime I’d already found another riff of my own and I liked that feeling, I was drawn to that. So that’s what I mean by you get it any way you can.”You really had your process down, there’s a real sense of authenticity in the music of The Band and I know a lot of that comes from the way you guys played and the spaces you were in, like Big Pink and stuff, but a lot of it came through the way that you conceived of those songs as well, these sort of southern standards that you wrote like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down…
“When Ronnie Hawkins decided to try me out to become one of The Hawks, by then I was 16 and I went down to Arkansas and ultimately to the Mississippi Delta where rock and roll grows out of the ground. So when I went from Toronto Canada down to the Mississippi Delta it made such a huge impression on my 16-year-old soul that it overwhelmed me, it washed over me and I felt my job was to absorb as much as I could, as fast as I could. First of all to become part of this group, because I went down there with serious handicaps and limitations. First all I was 16 years old and I was way too young to play in any of the places that Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks played. Next of all, I was inexperienced and I didn’t have near the musicianship experience as these other guys in The Hawks had and Ronnie Hawkins was always looking to put together the most amazing group he possibly could. Lastly, I was from Canada. There are no Canadians in rockabilly bands in the South – you don’t do that, it’s unheard of.
“I had so much to overcome but I really wanted to make this work and so I thought a major part of this was ‘I have to become one of them, I have to absorb and take this Southern essence down into my soul,’ so they didn’t look at me and think I was an imposter. Plus I was going to work harder and master whatever I needed to do musically to try to impress. I had all of these things going but because we were down in the South we were playing the Chitlin’ Circuit down there. I needed to wrap myself in this as deeply as I possibly could. Years later when we get this house called Big Pink I think ‘now I’m going to write the songs that I’ve been wanting to write all these years’ but we’d been on the road nonstop and I wasn’t really good at writing on the fly, I needed to be somewhere and have some kind of a setting that I felt like I didn’t need to pack and move on to the next place.
“I started to think about songwriting up there near Woodstock, New York. We’d got this sanctuary now I can do what my dream has been. I’d been writing songs all along for The Hawks but it would be like we’d be going into the studio on Thursday and Wednesday night I would have to think of something for us to record the next day, so I felt a frustration at never been able to settle in and do what I needed to do. So when we get this place up there, it’s like a dream for me. Then when I reach and want to write the songs that I can imagine The Band recording I know these guys, I know what they can play better than anybody, I know what they can sing better than anybody, so I’ve got to right the scripts… It was kind of the setting of a workshop that we would go in and my job was to cast these songs amongst these guys in this group and I loved that process and they loved this process.”
Were the words written first for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or did you write them to a melody?
“No I wrote that on the piano and I wrote these chords and I was humming a melody in my head and I didn’t know where this music is going to take me. One day I sat down to go over these chords again and this chorus came to me and probably in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘I want to write a song that Levon Helm can sing better than anybody in the world,’ so I’m leaning in that direction and I have this chorus. I played it for Levon and he said, ‘Son, I think you’re getting somewhere with this, that’s beautiful’ and I said, ‘I’ve decided I want to write this from the Southern side of the Civil War.’ He was kinda like ‘woah, really?’ thinking songs usually have a lighter story to them than something like that. It was a very unusual thought at the time, so I said ‘but I need to know more.’ So I said ‘I’m going to go and look up some things on the Civil War.’ I’m from Canada, they don’t teach the Civil War at school in Canada, so he said ‘come on, I’ll drive you over to the Woodstock library.’
“I went over there and I got a couple of books but it was hard to find something that was written from the Southern point of view. It was written from the Northern point of view, so I had to make it up and I said to Levon, ‘is there anything that I need to know, is there any clues or anything?’ and he said ‘just don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in it, because he was against segregation and wanted to unify the country. So from the Southern point of view they didn’t like Abraham Lincoln.’ So I was like ‘oh, okay, we won’t be bringing that up then.’ So anyway, just with a little bit of research I was trying to make a little movie in writing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. I did that in quite a few songs that I wrote because I was a movie buff myself, as much as I could be being on the road and everything back then…
“I’d found a place where I could buy movie scripts of movies that I loved. There was this bookstore on 47th street in New York, so I could buy the script for an Ingmar Bergman movie or a Felini movie or a Kurosawa movie or John Ford or Howard Hawks or Orson Welles. I loved this because to me it revealed a mystery that when I was watching a movie I’d say ‘how in the hell did they think of that, how did they do that?’ When I’d read these scripts I would go ‘aha I see.’ It took me inside of a world that ended up becoming part of my songwriting process.”
The music of The Band always felt very serious, songs about railways and unions and all this important stuff, and it’s great to hear you talk about Bob Dylan and his role in breaking down those barriers. Your descriptions in your book do a lot to humanise him…
“Yeah well we went through a lot together and we were good buddies and we had a great time having all kinds of musical experiences together, on many many different levels, just about everything that one could imagine. After we did that tour when I first hooked up with him, I guess it started in September of ’65 and then in the beginning of 1966, after we did that tour and we got through that alive so to speak, we were ready for anything after that. We’d played all over the world and people booed us and sometimes threw stuff at us every night and at the same time we came to the conclusion that what we were doing was good and bold and you’re gonna have to deal with it, we ain’t going nowhere. Eventually the world came around, so it’s one of those things that when you’re in the middle of doing stuff you really don’t understand how it’s going to be looked back upon but we did understand that we were in the middle of a musical revolution and we had to see it through.”
Going back to The Band material, there’s such an interesting blend of styles in there. Were you consciously thinking about your influence when you writing songs like Rag Mama Rag or Up On Cripple Creek or had you just internalised those influences and they came out quite naturally in the songwriting?
“Well one of the things I think that we subconsciously understood was all of our travelling around and going to places and being in contact with many different kinds of musicalities, and it could be everything from Middle-Eastern belly dancer music to roadhouses and honky-tonks in the South, we were exposed to so many things and then being in a place and saying ‘wait a minute, did you hear that thing called Sacred Harp?’ We would hear these things from Canada all the way to New Orleans all of this stuff, mixing it together and in New York City music that was on the streets and things that you would hear in the backrooms of places that would inspire something like Rag Mamma Rag. A big part of music at one time was ragtime and it’s beautiful and it’s got a feel to it and it’s got a certain celebration of life, we got to get in on this. So you just keep absorbing and absorbing and our minds it was like woodshedding it was like learning your craft being able to bring all these musicalities in.
“You’d hear this mountain of music and it was like ‘oh my god these people, what they’re doing with their voices and the sound of that mandolin, wow.’ So all of these elements kept creeping into our gumbo of music that we’d picked up from along the side of the road. You’ve got to remember that we were together for six or seven years before we made Music From Big Pink and then all of our experience of the Chitlin’ Circuit and everything else that you could possibly throw into this pot. Then Bob Dylan and all of the musicality in The Basement Tapes that he turned us on to from his background. I couldn’t tell on some of these songs whether he wrote it or whether it was a traditional song that I didn’t know about and so that was really interesting too. When we made our music all of these pieces started to creep into it naturally and Garth Hudson is a musicologist and had the ability to incorporate in his playing just about anything you could imagine!”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 90 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 65-minute interview with Robbie Robertson – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.