loving robbie robertson's testimony...

Last night I started to read the story of Robbie Robertson: Testimony. It is just what I had hoped for: musical minutiae for the "roots of rock and roll" geek in me, critical reflection upon his heritage as a young First Nations boy from Canada along with a deep awareness of the way sound, rhythm, harmony and passion can be woven together in ways that become food for the soul. Robertson was first shaped by the songs of his mother's people in the Iroquois Confederation. Back in the day, the pulse of drums accompanied by acoustic guitars formed a foundation for the movement of melody becoming harmony. To a young mixed race boy experiencing the community's only shared form of entertainment, the sounds were magical.

Later, Robertson was transported to another level of blessing when he was turned on to the low down rockabilly of Ronnie Hawkins, Duane Eddy and others. At 15, his teen band was opening for Hawkins in Toronto and before the year was out he was on a train heading to Arkansas for an audition. As an underage performer, Robertson had to wear a fake mustache drawn on by worldly twenty year old Levon Helm and keep his back to the crowd under a blue stage light. Before he was 16, he was sneaking into blues clubs in Memphis to hear Howlin' Wolf play in Black clubs, getting trashed on Southern rut-gut and being bedded down by all types of wild women.

Already, I am struck in these early chapters by the way genre bending music speaks to some of us of us in ways that are mystical. Rockabilly is already a hybrid form of the blues meets country twang. When I was exploring the roots of rock for my doctoral dissertation I discovered that the 1953 recordings that Elvis Presley did for Sun Records in Memphis  always included one side of a 45 rpm disc that favored part of the equation - the blues - while the flip side inverted the experiment and celebrated the other part of the fusion - country. He was clearly mixing and matching traditions to see which one worked the best both for himself as well as his audience. Think, for example, of his first release: Arthur "Big Boy" Craddup's "That's Alright Momma" backed by Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" The same research was at work with: "Good Rockin' Tonight/I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" or "I Forgot To Remember To Forget / Mystery Train."
One side emphasized his take on the Black traditions of soul, gospel and the blues - with a bit of jump thrown in to keep things hoppin' - while the other shared a slightly hipper take on country, traditional mountain music and bluegrass. A year later, the King was tearing it up at RCA with "I've Got a Woman," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes" and finally "Hound Dog." 

It was this same mojo that got the young Robbie Robertson working on his guitar skills and pushed him into the realm of live performance. (Check out this early cut of Ronnie Hawkins working his stuff on "40 Days" from back in 1959. Note, also, the urbane Dick Clark schmaltzing it up with his cowboy gear!)
Robertson, of course, went on to play electric guitar in Bob Dylan's renegade move from folkie to hipster in the mid 60s and then take it one step farther with the birth of The Band. His guitar style has been genre-bending from the start: clear but biting, subtle attacks that add interest without becoming self-indulgent while mixing a heartfelt blend of the blues, soul, and traditional folk sounds to his First Nations roots. 

Eric Clapton ached to join The Band back in 1968 after a few years of psychedelic hyperbole. He wanted to play it pure - like Robertson - and spent time with The Band up at Big Pink in Woodstock, NY. Clapton never made the musical move, but he did start to mine Robertson's genre-bending wisdom in his own way. If you know his first solo album, you can hear the heavy influence of Southern wild man, Delaney Brammlett, as well as the inimitable J.J. Cage. As the 70s ripened, Clapton played with a similar aesthetic by blending reggae sounds into a more pure Blues groove mixed into a stew of rock and soul. Small wonder that when The Band called it quits in 1976 - and Scorsese and Bill Graham hosted "The Last Waltz" at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom - Clapton played along with Howlin' Wolf, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ronnie Hawkins. 

Here's how the musical gumbo wound up: start with a master from Motown, Marvin Gaye, and play his "Don't Do It," adding the horns of New Orleans genius, Allen Toussaint, with Canadian rockabilly aficionados (most of the Band including Robertson) with the drumming and the vocals of Arkansas-born and raised Levon Helm. Pure magic and soul food.


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