Robbie Robertson was a rare bird, and it’s not likely we’ll see a comparable talent again in most of our lifetimes. As a writer, he drew from a deep and flavorful stream of musical styles–field holler work songs, country blues, gospel, old-time jazz with hints of ragtime syncopation, country and western, classic rhythm and blues, and rock and roll–and shared with his splendid Band members the ability to cogently blend the styles into an unaffected, appealing organic sound. It’s been said before, but his best songs seemed beyond era, as Robertson could have written them one hundred years ago or two weeks ago.
They were timeless, evocative, and put one in the center of what was a vividly and deftly portrayed idea of the American South, no less so than Faulkner or Carson McCullers. His lyrics, as well, were dually colloquial and surreal, presented in different guises of melancholy, a yearning for an idealized past, or which displayed an absurdist wit. The Weight is the prize example of Robertson’s talents–a rolling piano figure never far from gospel roots, the narrative details the oddness of small-town life and provides details that suggest hallucinations of religious fervor, incest, hidden insanity. It has the power of a storyboard from which a great novel or grand motion picture can be made. One can set up a half dozen songs by the late songwriter and notice a sublime variety of situations and emotional conflict, and notice Robertson's sure-handed use of first-person narrative, in a tone where someone was speaking about the contradictory elements of their life and how, somehow, the same said narrator was applying their shoulder to the wheel all the same despite the crushing circumstances that present little likelihood of abating.
Aspirations, love, better fortunes, happier and more fulfilling years past, Robertson's tales were of the people who fell between the cracks when good times turned ill; often enough it seemed the only reason anyone of the frequently tragic figures in the songs carry on in the grim landscape not through hope or the illusion thereof, but from memory, a nostalgia for days when existence had meaning and a personal refusal to finally die a cipher in the bleak landscape. Robertson was an artist of great and delicate talents that was a large part of why The Band is one of the greatest bands of the rock and roll era. An aspect of Robertson's years ago, that his interest was in characters who were from small towns but who had full lives and palpable experiences, speaking in their unique voices in unpretentious language that suggested full histories without an excess of grandstanding detail. His songs were monologues of a sort and were economical in the way people tend to be when recollecting the joys or heartbreaks of the lives they've lived. Robertson had a brilliance for a character sketch ; even his wordiest songs are spare, free of mood killing literary language. He could take himself out of the narrative and let his passion and concern for Southern lives come across in masterfully understated testimonials:in his best songs are a slate of first-person narrative ambiguities that can be seen as an ongoing sequence of monologues as cleanly expressed and moving as the voices rising from beneath the tombstones in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
His art is, of course, supplemented to no end by the superb contributions of his band mates--Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm-- and their astounding ability to incorporate so many hard-to-assimiliate musical genres in material that made a merging of gospel, old school blues, country music and ragtime into a natural and organic expression of musical emotion are the sort of things we can study for years to come, and there will likely remain debates as to the size of the contributions the other members made to the songwriting, but for the meantime I am content to acknowledge the profundity of Robertson's contributions