By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By 1960, Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins was teetering awfully close to obscurity: his cousin Dale had scored a hit with "Suzie-Q," but Ronnie had watched the sun set on the short-lived rockabilly heyday. Hawkins had found that the folks up in Canada were wild for anything from American that rocked even slightly and authentically, and moved his show to Toronto and the Canadian circuit and took with him a hillbilly kid from Arkansas named Levon Helm. Robertson, who loitered around Hawkins' shows, became enamored of the Hawk and Helm especially, and signed on when a replacement was needed.
Helm brought Robertson back with him to Arkansas, and the trip transformed Robertson, giving life to images and sounds and smells that seemed foreign to a boy from the other side of the mountains. When he first came to the United States, he was an awestruck teenager seduced by the rural backwoods of West Helena, Arkansas, and the music he heard coming from the bushes and barns.
"I am eternally looking for the thing that impressed me first and foremost about music," Robertson says. "I would listen to it and it would give me chills, and it would take me somewhere that I didn't know I wanted to go."
It would forever give him the outsider's perspective, like the tourist to whom every dirty road seems like Main Street and every rotting house appears as a great landmark; as he once said of first seeing the Mississippi River in 1960, "If I'd grown up down there, I'd probably have said, 'Well, this looks a little muddy to me.' But I thought, 'My God! The mighty Mississippi! Right there!'" A few years later, that experience would surface in the dozens of songs written for The Band that, in the early '60s, was still just a band.
Not long after Danko, Manuel, and Hudson were signed up in slow succession, the backup band figured it was good enough to go its own way. One Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks track shows up on Across the Great Divide--a blistering, possessed version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," recorded in March 1963. Already, Robertson sounded twice his age on lead guitar: he had the prowess of one-time competitor Roy Buchanan, the flair of James Burton, the growl of Muddy Waters down cold, and he stomps all over Hawkins.
Two other Hawks tracks--the previously unreleased "Do the Honky Tonk" by Don Robey and Robertson's "He Don't Love You," both credited to Levon Helm and the Hawks--were done without the bossman and gave the first indication that these five men had within them some tremendous music that couldn't be contained within one genre.
1968's Music from Big Pink and The Band the following year remain two of the greatest records ever recorded, and each is well-represented on Across the Great Divide. Twenty-five years after the fact, they now sound like short stories set to unnameable music--sketches of America past (the Civil War, the mythical Cripple Creek) and present, paintings of a landscape we take for granted but which Robertson and his Bandmates saw brand-new through innocent eyes. It's ironic, if not sad, that it takes Canadians like The Band and Neil Young and Cowboy Junkies to interpret our culture and hand it back to us purer and clearer than when they got hold of it.
Though each member was equally important to the chemistry of The Band--without Danko or Manuel or Hudson or especially Helm, the legends likely would have remained anonymous--Robertson was the principle songwriter of The Band and, though he sang only three songs throughout their 16 years together (with Hawkins, with Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s, then as The Band), his was the voice heard loudly in the mix. Robertson says The Band could have easily been titled America, and one need look no further than the song "Across the Great Divide" to see why. As Greil Marcus wrote in his startling essay 1975 "The Band: Pilgrims' Progress," the title itself contained a dual meaning--"The Great Divide is where the two sides of the country separate," Marcus wrote, "but is also where the two sides meet."
That song and the rest that follow, he continued, "are meant to cross the great divide between men and women; between the past and present; between the country and the city; between the North and the South; between The Band and their new audience." And, he stressed, it was always a celebration of discovery of a land the natives ignore, but one in which The Band found great hope and inspiration. The boxed set is almost like a history book and travel guide set to this immense and inescapable music.
But if The Band presented the possibility that "there are still open spaces out there," as Good Times editor Marvin Garson told Marcus on the eve of The Band's debut at San Francisco's Winterland in 1969, Robertson's solo albums (even Music for "The Native Americans," which is the richest and most detailed of the three) are like listening to music made by a claustrophobic in a small room. They are dense, at best, so thick and closed-off there's no room for a listener to ever step foot inside the music.