Robbie Robertson Sought to Write Songs 'Lost in Time'

Lead guitarist for the Band also collaborated with Martin Scorsese
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 9, 2023 7:50 PM CDT
Robbie Robertson Sought to Write Songs 'Lost in Time'
The Band, featuring Richard Manuel on piano, Levon Helm on drums, lead guitarist Robbie Robertson (smiling), bass guitarist Rick Danko, and organist Garth Hudson (not shown), take the stage for their final live performance before a crowd of 5,000 at Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco on Nov. 27,...   (AP Photo/John Storey, File)

Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and songwriter for the Band—a Canadian American group that famously backed Bob Dylan while achieving Rock and Roll Hall of Fame success in its own right—died Wednesday. Robertson, 80, died in Los Angeles after a long illness, CBC News reports. He wrote or co-wrote the Band's most famous songs, including "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Up on Cripple Creek." The group lasted just eight years, but its best work seemed timeless. "I wanted to write music that felt like it could've been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday—that had this lost-in-time quality," Robertson said in 1995. "It's like you'd never heard them before and like they'd always been there," Bruce Springsteen said of the Band in 2020, per the New York Times.

Born in Toronto to a mother of Mohawk and Cayuga heritage and a Jewish father who died before his birth, Robertson became enamored of the music played by relatives when he visited the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. Robertson received advice there that he said he followed as he built his career: "Be proud you are an Indian, but be careful who you tell." His first band opened for Arkansas singer Ronnie Hawkins when Robertson was 16, and Hawkins soon recorded of couple of Robertson's songs. Hawkins' backup musicians included Levon Helm on drums; the rest of the Band was put together in 1961-62 in Ontario. The Band released its first album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968.

The album landed with seismic effect, a blast of Americana music delivered at the height of the psychedelic movement. It helped lead Eric Clapton to leave Cream, the Beatles to launch a stripped-down Let It Be, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin to write and record their own music, per Rolling Stone. The Band built a following playing the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals and was proclaimed the "future of country rock" on a Time magazine cover in 1970. "I always thought, from the very beginning, that this music was born of the blues and country music, Southern stuff," Robertson said, per Variety. "The Mississippi Delta area, and the music came down from the river and from up the river and met, and it made something new."

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Robertson also partnered with director Martin Scorsese, beginning with the 1978 release "The Last Waltz," a concert film that included Dylan. Robertson went on to be the music supervisor on a series of Scorsese films. "Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life—me and millions and millions of other people," Scorsese said in a statement Wednesday. With the Band, Robertson was inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. He received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Songwriters in 1997 and from the Native American Music Awards in 2017. (More obituary stories.)

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