The songs may have been written his band mates without attribution or compensation
By Stephen Pate – “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Hunter S. Thompson Actually Hunter S. Thompson did not say that about the music business, although most people think he did.
Robbie Robertson was recently Robertson inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame. Robertson’s songwriting fame comes mainly from his work with The Band.
We loved The Band and their music. Guitarist Robbie Robertson is credited with writing most of their songs but according to band-mate Levon Helm Robertson stole them.
Before The Band, Robertson wrote no songs of any enduring interest. Most of the songs that made The Band famous were influenced or written by Bob Dylan, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, although Robertson claimed ownership in most cases.
The Band petered out as a creative force by 1972 largely due to their self-admitted excesses with alcohol and drugs. The Band broke up with The Last Waltz filming in 1976. Robbie Robertson went on to a lucrative career writing movie scores for his friend and director Martin Scorsese.
His solo CDs in the past few decades are highly forgettable, with weak melodies and even weaker lyrics. While it’s not unusual for artists to have a short term flash in the pan with creativity, the story with The Band and Robertson goes deeper.
The Band were known for fusing Southern American, swamp rock and an oddball lyric sensibility. The oddball lyricism and story telling was learned in West Saugerties and Bearsville, New York while they hunkered down with Bob Dylan in 1967 and 1968.
Listen to The Basement Tapes which were recorded from those freewheeling sessions and you can hear Music From the Big Pink and some of their early and best writing. Dylan taught them how to construct a story from folk myths and American folk roots.
Those weren’t Robbie Robertson’s roots. He’s a Canadian with native and Jewish ancestry. The songs like The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Up on Cripple Creek came from Levon Helm. That’s Levon’s culture and history going down, not Robbie Robertson.
The closest Robertson comes to authenticity is Acadian Driftwood and even then the real impact of the song is Cajun not Acadian, again from Levon Helm.
“Helm claims the opposite in his 1993 autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” in which he claims that Robertson ripped off his bandmates by claiming the lion’s share of songwriting credits in The Band (he could not be reached for an interview): “I even confronted Robbie over this issue during this era,” Helm wrote. “… I cautioned that most so-called business moves had [destroyed] a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them. I told Robbie that The Band was supposed to be partners … Well, it never quite worked out that way. We stayed in the divide and conquer mode.” Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Robertson responded in Kott’s article “Who did the work? I tried, I begged Levon to write songs or help me write songs — all the guys. I always encouraged everybody to write. You can’t make somebody do what they don’t want to do or can’t do, and he’s not a songwriter. With The Band he started to write one song, `Strawberry Wine,’ the whole time and couldn’t finish it, and I helped him finish it. And there were some other songs that I wrote and he was there when I was writing them, and just because he was being supportive, I gave him credit on a couple of songs. He didn’t write one note, one word, nothing. What he’s saying now is the result of somebody thinking about their financial problems. I wrote these songs and then 20 or 30 years later somebody comes back and says he wrote the songs? It never came up back then, and it’s preposterous that it’s coming up now.” Greg Kot.
We’ll never know if Robertson wrote those songs by himself or just appropriated them from his band mates. The Band weren’t managed as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney who split their songwriting credits no matter who wrote the song.
Personally, I believe he did and broke faith with The Band when they promised to form a band of equals with no one taking centre stage. Apart from the legalisms, Robertson didn’t write those songs in a vacuum but seems to be keeping the credit all for himself.
Or course, awards and award shows are the BS of life. The songs were great and we love them. For more on Big Pink, see Richard Goldstein’s ‘Big Pink’ Is Just a Home in Saugerties. Featured image Richard Lautens / Toronto Star.