Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy
Robbie Robertson comes full circle
by Jan Vanderhorst
North American Native culture is filled with circles. The Earth is a circle, the Sun's a circle, the Soul's a circle and where you start out in life, you eventually come back to.
To a young Robbie Robertson it was all nonsense. His response was "Ah circle schmircle!" But it's amazing how Life's truths prove themselves time and again.
As a young boy, Robbie spent many summers with his mother's family on the Six Nation's Reserve south of Brantford Ontario. While he was exposed to the Native culture around him, he was more interested in the musical culture that was rock and roll. Playing guitar in a rock band was his first priority.
While still a teenager, Robbie found a great teacher/mentor/taskmaster in R & B singer Ronnie Hawkins and his band the Hawks, which would eventually include Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. With Hawkins leading the way, the members of the Hawks toured the chitlin' circuit of the American South, honing their musical prowess and soaking in a culture which was quite foreign to the four Canadian members of the group. This was especially true for Robbie Robertson, who combined his touring experiences, and the inspiration from literature he was reading, into what was to become classic songs. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In" and countless others established a timeless sound that today would be described as Americana. It was a sound that would propel The Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Juno (Canadian Music) Hall of Fame.
But what makes up Americana music? History has been recorded by the Victors not the Vanquished. Is Americana music the music of white North America?
Until recently, that seemed to be the case.
"In the past," says Robbie Robertson, "when I was working with the Band, Bob Dylan or whatever I was doing, it wasn't the platform for me to be saying to those people 'now we're going to be doing some music about my Native heritage.' It felt indulgent to me."
Timing also has a bearing on what music will be accepted. For Robbie the timing is right for the release of his latest recording "Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy."
"When you're making music," according to Robbie, "you want to think there is a receptiveness to this, that you're not doing something nobody is going to respond to. A few years ago I didn't know how to do this. I hadn't discovered a way to share this part of my heritage musically. (But) something instinctive tells you 'Now you know how to do it. Now is the time to do it.' That was the case was with this (recording)."
The whole process began with the music Robbie put together for the documentary "The Native Americans."
"That was a great project to do," he says, "The fact it was Indian people speaking on their own behalf was very important to me. It's always been in the past to me, it was white people saying 'OK, now we're going to tell you what the Indians are like.' So I thought (the documentary) was definitely a step forward." When (the producers) asked me to do the music, I thought this was a great opportunity for what they were trying to do, but for me to also re-experience and rediscover a lot of my musical Native heritage as well. What that did was open the door for me to do some music like this in a very dignified way. It wasn't on a whim. It wasn't just saying 'OK, now let's do some Native stuff.'
Robbie Robertson is a musician who likes to experiment and continually search new musical ground. Yet the music of his Native culture has a firm hold on him following the "Native American" project.
"I felt I had not fulfilled myself in this area at all," says Robbie "and I really wanted to make a record that spoke in today's language. I wanted to say that the Heartbeat is loud and surviving today. I wanted to do it in a modern sense and share that with people.
It's also a matter says Robbie making the songs and chants of the culture relevant to today's Native youth.
"The young people have to be able to relate to this (music), it can't be only an educational process. It has to be like, "this feels good to me now, and is relative to today."
To address themes and things that are going on right now that is urgent today I thought was really important. In writing something like this, it's almost irresistible to (write) in regards to yesterday. But it is really important to feel (Native culture) is alive and well and kicking right now."
Of course a large part of that culture are the basic beliefs of the people, like the importance of circles and and how we always seem to return from where we came.
In preparing to make "Contact From The Underworld of Redboy," Robbie Robertson went back the Six Nations Reserve.
"I didn't know how to make this record unless (I returned)," says Robbie. "It was the thing I needed to do, to get the medicine, to make this record as boldly and fearlessly as what I hoped I could." "You go back to your origins, back to your roots in a much more knowledgeable and comfortable way than when you're younger. Maybe it's a part of the rebellious spirit, that you try to shed that skin and try to discover who you are. (Then) in the process of discovery at some point you start to feel comfortable with all that (skin) and you feel you do know how to share that with people. I think that was somewhat my experience. I found myself back where I started and really enjoying it, really felling good about it and it felt like good medicine for the soul in a way."
For over 30 years, Robbie Robertson has been making good music which has felt like good medicine to many people. Besides the Hall of Fame inductions, this past summer Robbie received a lifetime achievement award at the first Native American Music Awards.
For more information on Robbie Robertson and "Contact From The Underworld of Redboy" check the website:
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org