When Robbie Robertson died on Aug. 9, his death was well-covered by the media, from mainstream news outlets to a wide variety of music magazines, and across the blogosphere. Robertson died at age 80 after a long illness.
In most cases, Robertson’s legacy was afforded a very appreciative but overall sober analysis. This is not always the case, of course, when a “legend” passes away: in the aftermath of Gordon Lightfoot’s death, for example, critics and commentators piled the praise high and deep, with little care for objective evaluation.
Canadian musician, American music
Robertson was, like Lightfoot, a Canadian-born musician of considerable renown, but it seems to me that his death has provoked a very different response.
While one can readily find references to Robertson as a “Canadian music legend” — and even a tweet from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lauding Robertson as “a big part of Canada’s outsized contributions to the arts” — most eulogies do not dwell or try to force the issue of music and national identity into the foreground.
Even Trudeau’s comments seem rather generic and half-hearted compared to his effusive praise for Lightfoot as one of Canada’s “greatest performers” who “captured the Canadian spirit.”
To do the same for Robertson — who made his name in the American music scene — would be ridiculous.
Robertson and Lightfoot were of the same vintage. They were born within five years of each other, in southern Ontario, and had a similar musical pedigree. Both started writing songs and performing quite young. Both were in the orbit of Toronto-based rock'n'roll legend Ronnie Hawkins (who fronted The Hawks, the pre-fame incarnation of The Band). And both enjoyed long careers that included recognition from the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Indeed, both men have been celebrated as great songwriters, but the essential difference, it seems to me, is that Robertson was a more cosmopolitan, eclectic and versatile performer and composer. And unlike Lightfoot, Robertson couldn’t read or write music.
Touring with Dylan
Robertson’s stint as part of Bob Dylan’s band through the mid-1960s, as Dylan toured the world with a new, electrified sound, was surely part of this cosmopolitanism. After leaving Dylan, this supporting band would become The Band, with Robertson as its chief songwriter.
The Band would go on to make an indelible mark on the history of rock. The group’s loose, raw sound and seamless blending of styles, from rock, soul, rhythm and blues to gospel country and roots, would influence other superstar performers — notably Eric Clapton — to strip down their own musical approach, and develop a new, more authentic aesthetic (Robertson and Clapton would go on to collaborate a number of times).
The Band performed at Woodstock and other major festivals in the U.S. However, Robertson would effectively leave the group in 1976: he was tired of touring and was reluctant to work with the other members due in part to their heroin addictions.
By the time Robertson stopped touring and recording with The Band, he had been producing albums for other musicians — including Neil Diamond — and was on his way to becoming a successful film producer as well. The Band would continue recording and performing live well into the late 1990s — without Robertson — finally breaking up for good when bass player Rick Danko died in 1999.
Robertson undertook his own solo career in the late 1980s, recording and releasing six solo albums between 1987 and 2019.
Composing for film
Of course, Robertson also differed significantly from Lightfoot in that he had a long and successful career as a composer for films.
Robertson collaborated with director Martin Scorsese for nearly half a century, serving as Scorsese’s music consultant and composer for many of Scorsese’s movies. Robertson was credited in almost 20 Scorsese films, if you include Robertson’s performance in The Last Waltz, the 1976 film Scorsese made of The Band’s final concert with its original line-up.
A paradoxical figure
Robertson, ultimately, was something of a paradoxical figure. He was Canadian-born and cut his teeth in the Toronto music scene. But he ended up first backing up the quintessentially American folk music legend Dylan, and then becoming the primary creative force in a group — The Band — whose sound was rooted in American music, and especially the musical traditions of the American south.
Robertson also had a different connection to place than his fellow Canadian Lightfoot, having been born on a reserve to a Mohawk and Cayuga mother. Robertson’s love of music was catalyzed by the musical culture on the reserve, and his music continued to reflect these deep roots well into his later years. This happened most notably as part of his collaboration with Indigenous musicians for the 1994 documentary soundtrack Music for the Native Americans.
Robertson’s birthplace and ethnic background — Canadian-born, half-Mohawk/Cayuga, half-Jewish — lent itself from the start to what would become Robertson’s signature approach to song composition. Robertson favoured cultural blending and border-crossing, ignoring genre boundaries and creating something new and engaging out of a patchwork of possibilities.
In its obituary for Robertson, the New York Times went so far as to highlight the paradox of Robertson and his music by crediting him as the “Canadian songwriter” who created the “Americana” genre.
Lightfoot, to my ear, was a songwriter who wrote country-folk tunes that were very much of their time, and that fans and critics sometimes shoe-horned into “Canadiana.” Robertson, by contrast, was a fellow Canadian, and wrote music that was worldly, richly textured and without borders.
Alexander Carpenter does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.