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Robbie Robertson: Interview with a rock ’n’ roll legend

CLEVELAND – Robbie Robertson, Mohawk, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland as a member of The Band in 1994. He is one of only a few Natives who have been so inducted. His musical arrangements, songwriting style and unique approach to recording albums became legendary in rock ’n’ roll history.

In the mid-’60s, Robertson and his Canadian crew were the band that took Bob Dylan from a folk singer on the acoustic guitar to “going electric,” a term used by the music critics back then. Dylan’s electrified music brought new depth to rock ’n’ roll and united country and rock music by recording in Nashville. Dylan, a poet/lyrist, was inducted the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1998.

Robertson was able to speak with Indian Country Today the day he was scheduled to appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its “Inductee Lecture Series.”

<b>ICT:</b> Can you tell me about when you first got started in music? What were the Native influences?

<b>Robertson:</b> It started at Six Nations when I was a young kid. The only means of entertainment came from the people themselves. So it seemed to me, as a young kid, that everybody was somehow a part of it. Everybody played something or danced, sang, or participated in some kind of way … in the music and the storytelling.

It was all one thing to me. I just felt like I wanted to be a part of it, so I had my uncles and cousins show me some things on the guitar. Just a few chords here and there. Over a period of time, I started to get pretty good and after a while I was better than they were.

My family gave me a lot of love and encouragement. They would say, “You better keep this up here, boy. You might have a gift or something.” The music, storytelling and that [family support] influenced everything I have ever done in music.

<b>ICT:</b> In my research I came across a term, “story songs,” used to describe your unique songwriting style. It seems the Indian ways, like the storytelling and family involvement, were a big part of your music from the beginning.

<b>Robertson:</b> I feel very proud that I carried on. I feel like I can be a part of carrying that torch and passing things on to people like the storytelling and the music.

I am working on a Native American show that is a first of its kind. So some of the people I am working with on this decided that we want to do a show that goes from place to place. It will be performed in a big tent. We are talking about doing this on the grounds of some of the big casinos around the country, and to make it where the show will come to the people.

I am in the process of getting some of the greatest Native talent in all of North America together. We are trying to do something that really celebrates the Indian way, our culture, and will bring great pride. So I am working very hard at writing the music for this. It is going to be like the ultimate pow wow.

<b>ICT:</b> When you brought up having pride, it made me think that a lot of our kids will never get the opportunity to see a variety of Native musicians perform. But if your show would come to them, they could actually see the success of Native people in the music world. I think that would be empowering to our kids, especially those struggling on the reservations.

<b>Robertson:</b> I know. I know it is just a terrible thing that someone has to start in an unfair place and then try to make it in this very difficult journey. It is difficult even if you have a fair chance. It is completely unfair and heartbreaking to me. And so we are going to try and do what we can.

I have been a big supporter of the American Indian College Fund over the years. Because education ... can help a lot of things.

<b>ICT:</b>Are there some people from [the compact disc] “Music for The Native Americans” that are involved in your current project?

<b>Robertson:</b> That was such a lovely experience to be able to gather some Native people together. With my background it just gave us an opportunity to speak to people around the world and to show some of the lovely talent from Indian country. That record did well all over the world.

<b>ICT:</b>How did that all come together initially?

<b>Robertson:</b> Well, it was something I wanted to do for a while and I was trying to find a way to not make it like it was some kind of a novelty thing. And then hear, “OK, now Robbie is going to do this Indian thing.” It would make me uncomfortable to be perceived in the wrong light in any kind of way.

So, what happened was Ted Turner and Jane Fonda’s company was doing a documentary called “The Native Americans.” They came to me and asked me if I would do the music for this four-part series. I did the music for it and out of that came the music for this album. That is why it is called “Music for The Native Americans.” So the documentary that led to this album gave me the perfect launch and excuse to gather some great Native talent.

A lot of these people I have known for years, and we always talked about doing something together – and it finally happened. You know, that made me feel good.

Then, when I did the “Redboy” record, it was just the opposite. I was making this record with some other Native talent as well as some from the previous album. Then from that album, PBS made a documentary of the making of “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy.” That was pretty cool.

<b>ICT:</b> For those people who may not be aware of the Native entertainers you worked with on your albums, could you name a few of them?

<b>Robertson:</b> There is Rita Coolidge; she sings with her sister and her niece in a group called Walela. There was Pura Fe, another all-female group. I worked with Douglas Spotted Eagle, an acclaimed flute player, and a Choctaw musician, Jim Wilson, out of Sante Fe. I am working with him on this project too because he is also a record producer. Oh, there are so many people that I have worked with on these records.

<b>ICT:</b> As a member of The Band, you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. What has this honor meant to you?

<b>Robertson:</b> I have a special feeling for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. … One thing is a lot of people are eligible to become inducted but sometimes it takes a couple of years before they get acknowledged. Some have been eligible for many years and never get in. We got in the first year we were eligible. It was a nice feeling that the people who vote thought The Band’s music and contribution was that significant.

I think it is so great to pay honor to musicians whose music has played such a big part in our lives. Hopefully these inductions and ceremonies can be done with that same respect. I have helped for years, so now I am called ‘The Special Adviser’ to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. I really like it. It is the nicest way we can pay tribute to these musicians.

<b>ICT:</b> It is great for a Native person to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

<b>Robertson:</b> I just refused to look at it [being Native] as a disadvantage. Either out of being naive or whatever, I am … I just always thought that I was curious and wanted to make things happen. I have been fortunate. I have been fortunate in the things I have accomplished over the years. I have been involved with several musical revolutions.

I am very excited about the show I am working on. The idea of bringing incredible Native talent to the forefront for the people to witness and enjoy will be great. And hopefully it will make the audience proud of the original people of this continent and see we have something beautiful to offer. I am going to make this accessible to everybody, to as many people as I can.

<b>ICT:</b> Did you ever see your music as a solo artist as having a political impact?

<b>Robertson:</b> If it does and it has done something good, great. I never have gone into anything saying that I wanted to have political impact. I was just trying to be honest with what I was doing.

I do like to share things and, hopefully, they are meaningful things. You like to make a difference but you don’t want to be annoying. I think if you can do something and do it well, people will appreciate that. Then you can get your message across. I am not much for being out there, pounding and stomping to get the message across.

<b>ICT:</b> Since music is a part of our culture, what advice can you give to our youth to encourage them to get into music?

<b>Robertson:</b> I think music can be helpful on many levels besides just the individual level. The information is out there that music brings an advantage mathematically to kids. It is a good exercise for the mind and for the heart.

What is important is that it is something you share with people. Music represents always a coming together of our people. And you can be part of this. It is good medicine for the soul. I don’t know a better way to put it than that. I really encourage kids in some way to make music a big part of their life. There is nothing to lose, only things to gain. There are so many ways to participate in music.