In Memoriam: Robbie Robertson (July 5, 1943 – August 9, 2023)

Duane Allman once said that Robbie Robertson was his favorite guitarist, and this couldn’t be more fitting. Both Allman and Robertson lived at one with their instruments, and both stood at the founts of what eventually came to be called Americana music, each contributing his own style and sonic structure to the roots that would nourish the thriving Americana tree. Both Allman and Robertson played their guitars as if driven by some inner spiritual force—on some days demonic, on others angelic—that flowed through their fingers, and they lived in between the notes, searching ceaselessly for the just right combination of harmonics to float beneath, or to define, the melody.

Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson, who died yesterday at 80, played with a never-waste-a-note precision; his intros to songs such as “The Weight” resonate with listeners because of their purity and because they serve the song. Watching him playing onstage during the now-classic film of the Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, you can see his weariness, his resignation, but you can also feel the electricity in his playing and hear his stinging leads elevating songs such as “The Weight” and “It Makes No Difference.” Robertson brought the same peripatetic creativity to his songwriting, leaving us with masterpieces such as the above two songs as well as “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” “Broken Arrow,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Acadian Driftwood,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” among many others, and he traversed easily musical landscapes in these songs—Cajun, jazz, blues, folk, rock, country—illustrating his yearning to find the right notes in and for the right places.

Robertson’s career trajectory is well known, of course. When he was 15, in 1958, he opened for bluesman Ronnie Hawkins at a club in Toronto. He happened to hear Hawkins tell someone else he needed some new songs, so Robertson write two that night—“Someone Like You” and “Hey Boba Lu”—and have then to Hawkins, who recorded them. Not long after this, Hawkins joined Hawkins’ band where he me Levon Helm, who was already in the band.

Robertson and Helms left Hawkins in late 1965 to back Bob Dylan, and toured with him through the first half of 1966. Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident, his band—Robertson, Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson—settled into the now-famous big pink house in the Woodstock area, working on what became “The Basement Tapes.” The Band—a name they came up with after locals referring to them as the band in the house—recorded and released their first two albums: Music from Big Pink in 1968 and The Band in 1969, and over the next seven years the Band released some of the defining albums of roots music. The Band took its final bow on Thanksgiving 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco, playing a farewell to their fans in an event they called “The Last Waltz,” and which included performances by some of their friends, including Hawkins, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Dylan, among others. After the Band broke up, Robertson followed his broad creative instincts, working on the soundtracks of Martin Scorsese’s films, such as The Color of Money and The King of Comedy, and recording several solo albums, including his self-titled debut album in 1987.

In the end, Robertson leaves us with a catalog of music that continues to influence generations of songwriters and players. His crisp, clean, always-serve-the-song guitar playing palpably captures the weariness and the joy of the human condition, and in his songwriting he blends memorable sounds to convey the stories of individuals navigating the complexities of history or the raggedness of human emotion. With gratitude for his life and work, these five songs celebrate Robbie Robertson’s musical legacy.

Supported By