The Beginnings of the Band: Getting Started, Meeting Bob Dylan, and 'Music From Big Pink'

'We had never heard of Bob Dylan,' says drummer Levon Helm. 'But he had heard of us. He said, "You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?"'

the band rolling stone cover 1968
Elliot M. Landy
The Band on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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NEW YORK — Big Pink is one of those middle class ranch houses of the type that you would expect to find in development row in the heart of suburbia rather than on an isolated mountaintop high above the barn architecture of New York State's rustic Woodstock. When the band moved into Big Pink in the spring of 1967, the house looked as if it had been tenanted by little more than a housewife with a dustmop who only crossed its threshold once a week to clean it.

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The band, of course, had spent its six previous years living in hotels, rooming houses, motels, and the front parlors of friends' apartments, and what the band brought to Big Pink was the dust of the road. With Cardiff still black underneath their fingernails and Stockholm still caked on their boots, with Paris still waiting to be brushed off their trousers and Copenhagen unwashed from their hair, with the grime of Dublin, Glasgow, Sydney and Singapore still pasted on their luggage, staining their laundry and embedded in their pores, the band had just returned from an around-the-world tour with Bob Dylan when Dylan, injured in his motorcycle accident, summoned them to Woodstock to help him complete a television movie.

In Woodstock, a friend found Big Pink for them, at $125 a month. Settling like the dust they brought, the band lounged for a while on Big Pink's overstuffed furniture and then, taking their boots off the coffee tables, lugged their equipment into Big Pink's cellar, improvising a home recording studio. Dylan, who lived only a few miles away, would come over each evening and they would play together, running through a repertory that ranged from ancient folk songs to music they composed on the spot. Occasionally, a friend or neighbor would drop in as an audience. The band began to grow mustaches and beards and wear hats. It was in Woodstock that people started referring to them as The Band.

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The band's lack of a name may be puzzling to some. But as Robbie explains it, "You know, for one thing, there aren't many bands around Woodstock and our friends and neighbors just call us the band and that's the way we think of ourselves. And then, we just don't think a name means anything. It's gotten out of hand — the name thing. We don't want to get into a fixed bag like that."

Once they had been known as the Hawks. For a while they thought of calling themselves the Crackers. Now that they've released an album of their own music, they still don't have a name. Inevitably, they're going to be identified as Bob Dylan's band, but not even Dylan calls them that. Although Dylan painted a picture for the cover of the album, wrote one of the songs on it, co-authored two more and endowed the remainder with the unmistakable influence of his presence, Music From Big Pink is the band's claim to its own identity.

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"There is the music from Bob's house," says guitarist Jaime (Robbie) Robertson, "and there is the music from our house. John Wesley Harding comes from Bob's house. The two houses sure are different."

Robbie was born and raised in Toronto. "I was young, very very young when I got into music," he recalls. "My mother was musical and I used to listen to country music a lot. Then when I was about five, I can remember I had a thing for the big bands. I've been playing guitar for so long, I can't remember when I started but I guess I got into rock just like everybody else." Robbie left high school to play music in the Toronto area and had his own group for a while before he was sixteen.

At 24, Robertson could be considered the leader of the band, if the band bothered itself with such considerations. Once described by Dylan as "the only mathematical guitar genius I've ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound." Robertson was only 15 when he was hired by Ronnie Hawkins, one of the early kings and legends of that spontaneous combination of country soul and city flash known as Rockabilly. By the time he was 18, Robertson himself had become a legend in his native Toronto, barnstorming thousands of miles across rural North America with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. For a musician, the dust of the road gets into more than your pores. It gets into your hair, your nose, your eyes, your mouth, your voice and your music.

"We've played everywhere from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, which is a mining town about 100 miles from the tree line," says Robertson, and you can hear the grit when you listen to Music From Big Pink. "I pulled into Nazareth," he writes in "The Weight," one of Robertson's four songs on the album, ". . . was feeling 'bout half past dead . . . 'Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?' . . . He just grinned and shook my hand . . . 'No,' was all he said . . ."

There are four others in the band. Like Robertson, three of them came from Canada. At the organ, there is Garth Hudson, who had started out to attend agricultural college until a photograph of his uncle playing trombone in a dance band led him into the study of music theory and harmony. By the time he was 13, he says, he was the only one in London, Ontario, who knew how to play rock and roll. On the bass guitar, there is Rick Danko, who was born the son of a woodcutter in the Canadian tobacco belt village of Simcoe, where he grew up listening to Grand Old Opry on a wind-up Victrola and a battery radio. There was no electricity in his house, he explains, until he was 10. At the piano, Richard Manuel does most of the singing in a style that echoes the faint signal of the John R rhythm and blues show, broadcasting all the way from Nashville over Radio Station WLAC, 1510 on the dial.

"It was that era's underground radio," remembers Manuel. "I was about 13, and you had to stay up late to get it. You have to remember I was in Stratford, Ontario, at the time."

Organist Garth Hudson was born in London, Ontario to a farming family whose relatives included a number of musicians. "My uncles all played in bands and my father had a lot of old instruments around the house. I guess I began to play the piano when I was about five." Garth's high school band was "kind of a vaudeville act" according to him, and it wasn't until later that he began playing rock and roll. "I'd heard country for years though," he says. "My father used to find all the Hoedown stations on the radio and then I played accordion with a country group when I was twelve." After high school, Garth left Canada to form his own group in Detroit. Unlike most rock organists, Garth uses the Lowrey organ which, having a wider variety of orchestral sounds, has a specifically enriching effect on the texture of the band's music.

The only member of the group born in the United States, drummer Levon Helm comes from West Helena, Arkansas, the home of blues harp player Sonny Boy Williamson. "I used to listen to him a lot when I was a kid," he recalls, "but I think my influences are more general than specific." Like the other members of the band, Levon had his own rock group in high school. "It was called The Jungle Bush Beaters if you can believe it, but it was a good group." Richard Manuel is his favorite drummer and Levon doesn't listen to records. "It gets like TV," he remarks. "I once watched TV for six whole months. Didn't do anything else. That's what happens when you spend your time listening. You end up not playing and that's all I really want to do."

Rick Danko, born in Simcoe, Ontario, began playing guitar, mandolin and violin before high school and played in a band before he reached his teens. He dropped out of high school and joined Ronnie Hawkins when he was seventeen. "It had to do with physical education," he says. "Actually, I always wanted to go to Nashville to be a cowboy singer. From the time I was five, I'd listened to the Grand Ole Opry, the blues and country stations." Rick, who played rhythm guitar before joining The Hawks and now plays bass, doesn't like to think of himself as a musician. "Like I don't read music."

They all met playing with Ronnie Hawkins, who hired them one by one until, after three years, they quit. They were playing at a night club in the seashore resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, when, in the summer of 1965, Dylan telephoned them.

"We had never heard of Bob Dylan," says drummer Levon Helm, who, as a sharecropper's son from the South Arkansas Delta country, is the only American in the band. "But he had heard of us. He said, 'You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."

Whether or not Dylan, even in absentia, can be heard on the record as a sixth member of the band, Music From Big Pink will have to be judged on its own merits, not his. Probably it won't be. In taste, in modesty, in humor and perhaps even in perception, many of those merits tend to coincide, and one of the purest of Dylan's unpublished songs, "I Shall Be Released," graces the album like a benediction. "They say every man needs protection . . . They say that every man must fall . . . Yet I swear I see my reflection . . . somewhere so high above this wall," the lyrics go, but they don't go without music and, instrumentally, the band vindicates Dylan's taste in choosing them as his backup group in the first place.

What the band plays is country rock, with cadences from W.S. Wolcott's Original Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show and music that tells stories the way Uncle Remus did, with the taste of Red River Cereal and the consistency of King Biscuit Flour. Robertson himself calls it mountain music, "because this place where we are — Woodstock — is in the mountains."

With Music From Big Pink, the band dips into the well of tradition and comes up with bucketsful of clear, cool, country soul that wash the ears with a sound never heard before. Music From Big Pink is the kind of album that will have to open its own door to a new category, and through that door it may very well be accompanied by all the reasons for the burgeoning rush toward country pop, by the exodus from the cities and the search for a calmer ethic, by the hunger for earth-grown wisdom and a redefined morality, by the thirst for simple touchstones and the natural law of trees. "Isn't everybody dreaming?" Richard Manuel sings, ". . . Then the voice I hear is real . . . Out of all the idle scheming . . . can't we have something to feel?"

This story is from the August 24th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 16: August 24, 1968
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