For nearly forty years, Robbie Robertson has written and played rock & roll music rich with the color, character and mystery of American history. As a guitarist — in his teenage years with the Hawks, backing mad rockabilly daddy Ronnie Hawkins, and then in the mid-Sixties when the Hawks were Bob Dylan’s backing band in his electric-preacher years — Robertson combined a pithy, ferocious attack with religious blues, folk and country scholarship. In the late Sixties and the Seventies, when the Hawks became the Band and he became the Band’s dominant songwriting voice, Robertson told vivid, poetic stories of war, harvest, drunkenness and salvation through the eyes of fighters, farmers and drifters: Virgil Kane, the weary Civil War soldier in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; the flop-house party boys in “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Shape I’m In”; the homesick immigrants in “Acadian Driftwood.”
The irony is that Robertson, 53, is not American. He is Native American. The Canadian-born son of a Jewish gambler and small-time-hood father, Robertson is of American Indian descent — Mohawk — on his mother’s side. Rosemary Chrysler, or Dolly, as she was usually known, was raised on the Six Nations Reservation, in southern Ontario. And it was at Six Nations that her son, who spent many summers there as a youth, was schooled in the ancient wonders and enduring responsibilities of his heritage.
On his new solo album, Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy, Robertson directly addresses, and draws from, his American Indian ancestry, combining spaced-age hip-hop and Euro-techno noir with American Indian singing, drumming and ceremony. “It’s like turning you on,” the singer and guitarist says in his suite at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “Like when you were a kid: ‘You gotta hear this new Jimmy Reed thing.’ I’m in a position to say, ‘I know about something here. Let me share it with you in a way where we speak a bit of universal language.'”
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For the 1994 television-soundtrack album Music for “The Native Americans,” Robertson recorded with the Red Road Ensemble, an American Indian group. But on Contact From the Under-world of Red Boy, he plants his deep roots in pop’s outer limits. American Indian performers like the Six Nations Women Singers, the late Leah Hicks-Manning (Sampled from a 1942 Library of Congress recording), and the peyote healer singers Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike appear on tracks co-produced by Marius De Vries (Björk, Massive Attack) and DJ remixer Howie B. Over the death march groove of “Sacrifice,” American Indian activist Leonard Peltier speaks on the phone from prison about the pain and politics of his two consecutive life sentences for the 1975 slayings of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota.
“The place was rocking; the beats were coming, the people were chanting,” Robertson says of the sessions for the album, which includes a bonus track remixed by DJ Premier and is released alongside a companion TV documentary, Robbie Robertson: Making a Noise, to air on PBS. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t have any experience to compare this to. It felt like such good medicine.”
In the Band, you wrote about the American frontier from the point of view of farmers and pioneers whose real-life counter-parts were instrumental in the decimation of traditional American Indian life. How do you relate to the characters in those songs now?
I’m just making movies. I was telling stories in the tradition of any of those guys — Faulkner, Steinbeck. I remember in the Band, years ago, when we were the Hawks, we’d be driving along a road down South. I’d look out and see this little house in the field with one light on and smoke coming out of the chimney: “Who lives there? What is that story?”
There was a romanticism about that. “Those people in that house, they hurt the Indians” — I didn’t think that way.
“Red boy” is a racist epithet for American Indian. Why did you use it in the album title?
It’s the only derogatory term I’ve ever been called in my life. Nobody ever called me “Jew boy.” They called me “red boy.” It caught me off guard so much when I was a kid that I was stunned by it.
A couple of my cousins had been with me. We were playing with bows and arrows in a field when these bigger kids said, “Hey, red boy.” I looked at my cousins and saw their heads go down. The look on their faces scared me right down to my soul. It gave me a shiver that I never got over, my whole life.
Somebody said, “What are you thinking of calling this record?” And it blurted out of me. I worked on another song that’s not on the record called “Between Dog and Wolf.” It says, “Hey, red boy, where you goin’ with that drum?/Hey, red boy, where you goin’ with that paint on your face?” [Pauses] But it was a little bit on the nose for me to put on the record.
How did you sell the idea of this album — the combination of traditional music with electronica and hip-hop — to the American Indian performers and tribal elders?
In the native community, you want to do this with a blessing. Because most of them are older people, you expect this thing, “Don’t forget the old ways.” But I got, “Don’t try to pretend that you know what it was like 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago. If you’re gonna do this, do it with your strengths. And your strengths are what you know now.”
Were you worried about violating the purity of traditional drumming and singing with loops and hip-hop beats?
I thought, “If I’m right and if I’m good at what I do, this will be quite seamless. It will seem like it should have always been there.” Most of the people who worked on this record hadn’t even been in a studio before. We were filming the peyote singers [on “Peyote Healing”] for this PBS documentary. This has never been filmed before, never in the history of the world. But because they’re young guys, young peyote men, they’re more adventurous. They weren’t going, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” They put a lot of trust in me. I had to know what I was doing, barrel ahead.
Did the peyote singers recreate the entire peyote ceremony for you in the studio?
They did part of it. There was this ritual of the peyote drum. One guy takes the drum skin and ties it on real tight. The other guy’s got these peyote shakers, and he makes this rhythm. I started putting my ideas together, taking what I thought could add up to a composition. Once I had a bead on what was going to work, at that point everything stopped. The lighting changed. And they took the medicine.
They actually took the peyote?
They don’t comprehend the ceremony without it. And this is not about getting loaded. This is about . . .
Getting loaded on God?
Yeah. The idea of doing this for rec-reational purposes — it’s scary to them. This is not a party situation. The whole thing for them is to get to a place where all you know is your connection to your creator. This is a direct line.
Have you taken peyote?
Did you get that direct line to God?
Yeah. It’s such a natural part of us. But people go to churches, and an interpreter — a priest, rabbi, whatever — says, “OK, I’ll see if I can get you in touch with God.” This says, “No interpreter necessary.”
What are your earliest memories of growing up on the Six Nations Reservation?
These were the luckiest people in the world to me. They had a relationship with the elements that was magical. They knew how to do things underwater, take things out of the ground. You peel off this root, suck on this thing — I’d never tasted that before. I’d be walking with my cousins. All of a sudden, one of them would jump and snap off a branch from a tree, pull out a knife and, within seconds, make one of the most beautiful weapons you’d ever seen.
And when this was over, everybody goes and makes music. There’s a fire and singing and dancing. I didn’t see the problem here.
It was at Six Nations that you first heard Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell songs — which seems strange, that you would hear white cowboy music in that setting.
They referred to it as country music. And they lived in the country. They didn’t think of it as cowboys and Indians. When you would play games as a kid, everybody was Indians. The cowboys were invisible people hiding on the other side of the hill. And the Indians never lost [laughs].
When did the tragedy of American Indian reservation life dawn on you?
When I was told these were unfortunate people, I was like, “I don’t get that. These people drink water that tastes sweet, like honey, out of the ground.” As I got older, I began to understand. When I went back to Six Nations with the PBS people, they followed me back to this little house where I used to live. I lived there with my mom, my aunt and uncle, and they had twelve kids — all in this house. I don’t remember being crowded.
But I went back, and one of my cousins still lives there. He still has no plumbing. There’s an antenna on top of this little house, and I asked him in the documentary, “You got a TV? When did this happen?” He goes, “May be ten years ago.” It was that long before TV even came into the place.
What kinds of pop music interest you now? You have a long association with American historical music, but you’re turning up on records with Howie B. and DJ Premier.
It’s so interesting to me what’s happened over the years with the expansion of hip-hop. Years ago, when I first heard Massive Attack, I thought, “It’s great. People are trying this stuff, opening up.”
I’ve been listening to the Verve record [Urban Hymns]. And there’s a couple of cuts on this Timbaland and Magoo record [Welcome to Our World]. Tim Mosley [a k a Timbaland], he’s a talented guy. He does some ferocious beats.
What do you think of the new Bob Dylan album?
I haven’t heard the record. I’ve only heard a couple of cuts on the radio. What I heard sounded interesting to me. But it’s not where I’m drawn now. I spent a lot of time in that neighborhood already. I know these stories. But it is not where my curiosity lies.
There’s a Dylan quote from 1965, when you first started playing with him. He said that you were “the only mathematical guitar genius that I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear-guard sound.” Do you have any idea what he was talking about?
Phew, Jesus, that sounds like it could be drug-induced [laughs]. When I first started playing with him, he used to give me way too many solos — I thought. He’d sing a verse and then look at me. I’d play a solo. He’d sing a verse, look at me again, and I’d play a solo. And I’d think, “What is this? Sing the song.”
He’d still have another twenty verses to go.
Yeah. And I’m making this song real long by playing these solos. But he liked the power of this thing, this skanky guitar that I was playing at the time.
What did you think of “Invisible Republic,” Greil Marcus’ book on the Basement Tapes?
I haven’t read it yet. I’ve surrounded myself with native material during this project. But I’m sure he’s got some interesting observations.
Did you imagine, when Dylan and the Band made those recordings in 1967, that they would be the subject of rabbinical study thirty years later?
No. This was the discovery of the clubhouse method. I wanted to have a place where the guys in the Band could all go every day. We could hang out, we could eat, we could play music, we could play checkers. Then Bob started coming over and hanging out. It all felt so relaxed. Because this house was out in a field, in the middle of nowhere.
You were in the house with one light on and smoke coming out of the chimney.
Yeah. What we were doing seemed so inside. We would do these songs and fall on the floor laughing. Or we would say, “Boy, this sounds like it could be turned into something.” There were even things that were slightly embarrassing. It was private. And when they got out in the beginning, everybody was real uptight. It was like somebody got your diary.
After that, it became a recording style of people saying, “I’ll make my own atmosphere.” When I did some work with U2 in Dublin on my first solo album, they were recording at a house. When I went in, the first thing they said was, “Familiar?” Guess we know where this came from.