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?"'

August 24, 1968
the band rolling stone cover 1968
The Band on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Elliot M. Landy

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.

A Portrait of the Band as Young Hawks: 'The Last Waltz'

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.

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Robbie Robertson

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.

Former The Band Guitarist Robbie Robertson Preps New Album

"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 . . ."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Long Walk Home”

Bruce Springsteen | 2007

When the subject of this mournful song returns home, he hardly recognizes his town. Springsteen told Rolling Stone the alienation the man feels is a metaphor for life in a politically altered post-9/11 America. “Who would have ever thought we’d live in a country without habeas corpus?” he said. “That’s Orwellian. That’s what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals.”

More Song Stories entries »