“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “Rag Mama Rag.” “Up On Cripple Creek.” These have transcended the status of being mere rock and roll songs to the point where they are nothing less than standards. They, and nine other brilliant tracks, all came from one album, simply titled The Band, because that’s all you really need to know to understand its excellence. In Part 2 of our three-part interview with Robbie Robertson (check out Part 1 here), we dive into his recollections of and inspirations behind the creation of this landmark record, sometimes referred to as The Brown Album because of the sepia cover shot of Robertson and Band-mates Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. It’s the perfect time to do it, since a 50th anniversary reissue will be released on Friday, which includes the remastered album, choice outtakes and unreleased versions, and the entirety of The Band’s performance at the Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969, just a few months before the original release of the album. And stay tuned for more with Robertson in the upcoming Legends issue of American Songwriter, where he discusses the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.
After the success of Music From Big Pink, did the Band discuss ahead of time what the second album would be like?
We never talked like that. That would feel, from the way that we operated, contrived. We’d been together for a while already when we made Music From Big Pink and The Band album. We were dealing on another level with one another. Part of my job was to think of direction and ideas, because the songwriting at this point was really resting on what I was going to come up with. And I felt like the deeper that I could do inside of our own existence, our own brotherhood, the music that I could discover inside that would be the most honest.
That’s why we didn’t go into a recording studio to make this record. We did it in our own environment (a rented home in Los Angeles.) I had a very strong belief in the workshop concept, the clubhouse. When we would go into a studio, it was like we were in somebody else’s environment. We had to get in and get out on time for them, and there was like a big clock on the wall. I wanted the opposite feeling to that. I wanted to uncover some things that we had locked inside.
And in that musicality, in the songs on that record, there was nobody in that territory. It seemed like it came out of nowhere. Yet it never crossed my mind that it needed to come out of nowhere and that it was different. It really was “What can we do that we do so well?” And we were lucky enough to be able to tap into that. But we were able to tap into it because we were in our own world. It had nothing to do with what was happening, what was trendy, what people wanted to hear. I had no idea the answers to any of that.
When people talk about great albums about America, the Brown Album is usually mentioned, which, of course, was ironic, because you were four-fifths Canadian. Did you feel like an outsider looking at these topics with a fresh perspective or did you feel like you had traveled the country long enough that these songs were in your bones?
From a songwriting point of view, one of the places that it came from is when I went from Canada to the South. I was 16 years old. And I was going to the Holy Land of rock and roll. I was going to this place where all this gospel music, all this blues, all of this rockabilly, all of this true rock and roll really grows out of the ground. How in the world in this area around Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi and leaning down into New Orleans and over to Macon, Georgia, how did all of this music come out of this place? What is in the water down there?
So when I went there, it made such a powerful impression on me. It was already a religious experience for me because of my addiction to this music. I felt like I was in the middle of it. And it didn’t disappoint me for a second. There was more music than I could ever imagine. There was more mud than I could ever imagine. We were always going down the Mississippi River to another location where the music was even better. That was the feeling. This played such a strong part in my realization.
Like I said, I was 16 years old, so it made an indelible mark on my creativity and the way that I wanted to write. And at the same time, I was reading Faulkner and I was so deep into this world, just because I thought it was so special. And I had to go down there to make an impression. I was going down there to join a Southern rockabilly band. There are no Canadians in Southern rockabilly bands. There are no 16-year-olds that aren’t old enough to play in the places you’re going to play. There is nobody with the experience that I had to win this, and I had to win it. So I had to go there full-on. I had to give everything and absorb everything I could.
And in that experience, these characters that I was already appreciating from Canada, when I went there, they were right in front of me. It was like I stored all this up in a trunk in the attic of that creative place that you have back there. When you need to tap into something, that’s the place you go. So that was stored up in there, and I had to open up that trunk.
You were writing songs like “Rockin Chair” and “When You Awake” that talked about the older generation and family, things that were out of step with the subject matter of a lot of pop and rock at the time. Were you aware as you were writing about how you were bucking the trend?
There might have been something that I was carrying around in me about tradition. And people that pass something very special down. Because I was learning, and everybody was older than me is what I felt like when I was in it. I felt like I’m the kid here and I need to learn from my elders. I need to absorb what these people know. And so I think that there was a certain respect that was built in from that.
And I think that I was tapping into tradition and also thinking about music and storytelling in a way that had a timeless quality to it. I didn’t want to be thinking about what’s happening today. I wanted to think about stuff that had influenced me and the power and how great stuff was. Part of our job in The Band was absorbing all of this great stuff and then mixing it in to our musical gumbo.
Although you were telling stories of these Southern characters, there is also on the album “Whispering Pines,” a first-person confessional sung so beautifully by Richard Manuel. Were you trying to get inside his head a bit with those lyrics in terms of the sensitivity and loneliness?
Yes. That was also part of my chore in this group. I looked at The Band as somewhat of a theatrical group. In the documentary somebody refers to me appreciating Ingmar Bergman. Ingmar Bergman, in many cases, used the same actors in his movies and they played different characters. And I thought, wow, that’s really his own world, and he’s just off in his own world, writing this stuff and presenting this in his kind of way and he’s got this amazing talent to work with.
So I thought I’ve got to write songs that Levon or Richard can sing better than anybody. I’m writing a song and I’m thinking, Rick Danko, I’ve got to find something with his sound, his phrasing, that he can get across so well. And it was pretty good casting on my part.
The package of the reissue contains The Band’s performance at Woodstock. You talk in Testimony (Robertson’s memoir) about how you felt, as you performed, a bit disconnected from what was going on at the festival. Yet listening to it, it’s a fantastic performance by the group. Were you surprised at what you heard when you went back and listened to it?
What really struck me about it in revisiting it is that the people that were putting on this concert called the thing Woodstock because of The Band and because of Bob Dylan. We were the only people actually from Woodstock at the concert. So they said, “Oh my God, you guys are the center of this, you’re the soul of this thing.”
When we got there, it seemed so crazy and otherworldly almost that I thought I don’t know if we belong here. And then they said, “You’re going to go on now.” We went on at 9 o’clock or something, the final night. It was the most people that were there. And these people, they were ready to get crazy. And they were ripping their shirts off and in the mud and jumping up and down.
And we went out and played and it was not much different than people coming and playing hymns. You saw the audience kind of like stop jumping up and down and their mouths opened and they were looking at us and taking in this sound. And you could feel all of it spread over the crowd in a way. It was almost like a spiritual experience. And I thought, “We are so not giving them what they want. Maybe this is a good thing.”
We just went and played not much different from the way we played when we were in the basement and it was an intimate surrounding. But now we’re playing in front of, I don’t know, a half a million people or something. And they had to adjust to what we were doing. We weren’t able to adjust to what they were looking for. And I hear that when I listen to this now, because it takes me to that place.
Speaking of going back to a place, when you did this project and had to go back and listen to all the old tapes, what was most striking about it?
There is an incredible innocence in this music-making. There is taking something out of the air that didn’t exist and making it exist. And it has a sonic quality to it that is different than anything else. It has subject matter that is different than everything else. It is so unique in a way. And because I was crazy enough to insist on us doing it this way. When we told the record company that we were going to record the album in a house and not in a studio, they’d never heard anything this crazy. Nobody did that back then.
Now everybody goes to a cabin or some secluded place.
It didn’t exist then. They were like, “What is wrong with these people?” Because of the success of Big Pink, they had to kind of go along with it as much as they didn’t want to. But they did this. And because of the uniqueness of the circumstance, it allowed us to do something that unique. We were so close because we were all living together, we were eating together, we were making music together, everything was together. And in the music, there’s a togetherness in it, that’s as close as I’ve ever heard.