If I can play one note and make you cry, then that’s better than those fancy dancers playing twenty notes. Robbie Robertson
One should know better. It should no longer surprise any of us when any member of the big league of artists who we loved growing up pass on. Robbie Robertson was eighty years of age and despite all our best wishes, turned out to be human after all. What has surprised and disappointed me is how poorly the news people in all types of media have failed to grasp just how significant his contribution really was.
For those who don’t know, Robbie Robertson was the spiritual leader, guitarist and principal song writer for (in my opinion) the greatest band that ever was. The Band. They were so well named. The emphasis should always be on the definite article.
A few years ago, when the complete Basement Tapes came out, I interviewed Sid Griffin from the Long Riders about the project. Sid wrote an excellent companion piece and guide to the whole project, which I highly recommend to you. In conversation with Sid around the time he made a very good point which essentially said this project and indeed The band themselves invented Americana. They, of course, didn’t call it that and may well have seen the very term as a little limiting as they really knew no boundaries to their music yet knew exactly where it came from. That place was the great melting pot of blues, folk, hillbilly and soul music which they all absorbed growing up. That Robbie was Canadian too was significant. Perhaps it was that northern detachment married to Levon Helm’s southern stew of influences which made the sound of The Band so unique. Or perhaps it was just that they were all so good and all knew what they should and should not be doing. For Robbie it was the spaces; what he left out as much as what he put in. How often have you had the misfortune of hearing a music-shop guitarist mangle a tune and wish he’d lift his head up and listen? I know it’s happened to me too often to know I rarely want to listen to unnecessary axe grinding.
Robbie’s playing was different. Despite sixties contemporary players being drawn towards the old thirties blues masters, Robbie leaned towards different craftsmen. In his own word he explained it here: “I wanted to develop a guitar style where phrases and lines get there just in the nick of time, like with Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper. Subtleties mean so much, and there is a stunning beauty in them.”
How glad we are that Robbie took the time to listen and learn. We will play a couple of beautiful things with Robbie’s name on them on this week’s AC and it may well cause you to go back and listen yourselves. I’m so grateful he left a deep chest of music to enjoy again and again.
Elsewhere we will spend time celebrating an instrument that’s essential to the sound of country music – the mandolin. In the second part of this week’s show we celebrate the mandolin 100 years on from Gibson manufacturing the F5 made famous by Bill Monroe. Listen out for songs old and new which highlight this beautiful instrument. We’re on at five past eight on BBC Radio Scotland and whenever you prefer on BBC Sounds.
I still have a few shows for you before I hit the road in September but I’m going to give the blog a little holiday for a couple of months . I’ll be back with you in October.