Robbie Robertson: in his words and testimony
What current projects are you working on?
Everything for me right now is revolving around the release of my book Testimony and the fact that it happens to be the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz. I also helped with the music for Marty’s (Martin Scorcese) new movie coming out called Silence. I’m also in the midst of making a new record — there’s a lot cooking right now.
What brought about the idea for The Last Waltz?
It just felt like a time in that particular period it felt like we needed to have a celebration of music. We needed to bring something to a culmination in The Band and that era of music. We thought that we could have this gathering and put together something so beautiful in the name of music and then as it turned out for it to be captured on film and everything that it would bring closure to a period of music and The Band’s story and everything around us. It felt like a calling that was meant to be.
Your book testimony is more than 500 pages and only tells your story up to age 33; is there going to be a Volume 2?
Yes there is. I mean, I can’t tell my life story and end it when I’m 33 years old.
What was the motivation to write Testimony in the first place?
I tried some other things over the years. There were people who wanted to write biographies on me and I was honoured by that, but I couldn’t get satisfied with the story telling. Then I realized starting back to when I was very young on Six Nations that the story telling thing that that’s my job. That’s what I got from Six Nations and I carried around with me all these years and to be truthful about it I got to use that voice. It just meant I got to do it myself.
You refer to Six Nations in the book as your primary influence for music?
That’s where it all began for me. That’s where my musical connection began. As I say in the book that going there it seemed like all of the relatives that everybody played something or sang or danced and I wanted to get in that club. I wanted to be part of that. My uncles and cousins would show me a lick or two on the guitar and I was drawn to it and every time I would come back to Six Nations I would get another little lesson. Sometimes they would come and visit are family in Toronto and show me a couple of licks then and it just built from there. That was my genesis of my whole beginning to play guitar and my true involvement in music.
Through albums like Contact from the Underworld of Redboy and the Red Road Ensemble (Music for the Native Americans) you have put a lot of artists from different nations on the map.
It was an honour for me. When this came along there was a documentary being made for PBS called the Native Americans in the states. They asked me if I would be interested in doing music for this and I thought ‘aha’ this could open the door because I have so many friends in the native community in North America who were so talented and so great and that I could pull them together and we could collaborate and do something and send it out to the world something on a global level that they hadn’t heard before and so by mixing worlds together just like the beginning of rock and roll where they were mixing blues and mountain music together. The opportunity to be able to do something so modern and with different artists on Music for the Native Americans and it was a joy to do that. I was doing music that was connected for this documentary. When I did the Redboy album they were doing a PBS special on me and so we got to do it the other way around. We got to make the music and they were following us around with the film and I was lucky to be able to come back to Six Nations to film me there. I did things with Sadie Buck and the Iroquois women’s singers and I had a thing in there that I did with Chief Arnie General he’s somebody that I loved and Chief Jake Thomas. Come on it doesn’t get much better than that. I had another wonderful experience as well making a book called Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. Roberta Jamieson did a whole thing and got a whole bunch of books for kids in indigenous schools in Canada and the United States; what a wonderful experience. That story that I heard when I was nine years old had such a profound effect on me. Herb Myke from Six Nations who passed recently and he was somebody who made a big difference in my life.
In Toronto, I saw Roberta Jamieson and heard from Kim Johnson too and they are co-ordinating with Jace Martin and Chief Ava Hill to try to organize a thing to bring me back to Six Nations and we are going to do something beautiful. We don’t know exactly when and what we are doing yet. We just started and we are working on it.
What is your fondest memory of Six Nations?
I have a hundred of them. I write about this in my book the most pivotal moment for me was sitting in a room and everybody sitting around playing the Iroquois water drum, there would be some body else playing the mandolin with a couple of strings missing, somebody else playing a homemade fiddle, somebody else playing a guitar out of tune but I was sitting up close to it. I could here the fingers on the strings and changing chords and playing these melodies and the way the voices blended together and then somebody else would start dancing in the back and other people would join in singing. It was interesting because it was traditional music some nights but sometimes they were singing cowboy songs by Lefty Frizzell and heartbreaking songs because we lived in the country they sang country music. There was a bit of irony to that my first exposure to music up close and in person was Indians playing cowboy songs and it was beautiful.
How do you view what’s going on at Standing Rock?
It makes me furious. This horrible, horrible pushing and imposing on the people and you know its like ‘my god, can you just leave it alone’. When is it enough? How much more damage do you need to do? How much more hurt do you need to cause on this? And the fact that thousands of people are showing up there in protest I just put my fist in the air and say, right on!
In regards to music scores, how do you view them?
When working with Martin Scorcese it is such a variable. The first movie I worked with him was Raging Bull and there was a particular thing that he needed for that I wanted to give him for the movie. Then I worked on another film with which was a completely different thing we were going after and over all of these years and over all the movies I have worked on every one seems to be a whole new and fresh challenge. It’s always really special with him. His connection to music is above and beyond most film directors and that’s why I asked him to direct The Last Waltz. It’s an ongoing thing with him and I. He will say OK we have a new challenge here you got any ideas for this? We try to stir things up in our imagination and begin by going against the grain. He never wants typical movie music and that’s challenging and exciting.
Robbie’s message to Six Nations: I want you to send big love to the people of the bush for me and I’m coming home soon.