Robbie Robertson is spending his golden years holed up and writing feverishly. It’s the only way he’s ever been able to work, he said in a phone conversation with Rolling Stone. The legendary guitarist and songwriter of the Band is secluding himself in order to finalize the first volume of his autobiography, a lofty project that stemmed from a substantial 850-page handwritten draft chronicling events in his life only up until 1976. “I have a strong memory for details,” he laughed. “I’m just reliving everything. Some of it has been extraordinary and some of it has been quite painful.”
Robertson handles his formidable project schedule with the composure of a gymnast on a balance beam. He’s eager to multitask, even though he sighs about being sorely overbooked. But revisiting his early years has been an unexpected boon. In September, Robertson published his second children’s book with Caldecott-winning illustrator David Shannon, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. It’s based on a sacred Native American story Robertson first heard over 60 years ago on the Six Nations of the Grand River reservation in southern Ontario where his mother’s family lived.
The story of Hiawatha, a tale about faith and the birth of democracy in the Indian nations, had a profound effect on Robertson’s musical and literary path. “There was something about the elder who told the story,” said Robertson. “It gave me chills. I remember after that experience saying to my mom, ‘I hope when I grow up, I can do something like that.'”
Robertson, who comes from Mohawk and Cayuga descent, began showcasing his heritage musically in 1994 with a Native American group called the Red Road Ensemble. Ever since, his native roots have been a source of constant vitality for the prolific musician. He spoke to RS about how those early experiences shaped him has an individual and a musician.
Tell me what it was like to go with your mother to Six Nations. What was most surprising to you about their way of life?
When we would go I thought, “Wow, these people have it made.” They knew if it was going to rain tomorrow. They could run up a tree. I had cousins that could snap off a branch and turn it into a beautiful spear. They didn’t have any entertainment coming though on the res, so they made their own. Everyone sang or danced. I was about 12 or 13 and thought — I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on a guitar.
Not too long after that, you would drop out of high school to play music professionally.
With a promise to my mom that I would go back to school. But I found another education.
You were learning to play guitar on the reservation in the 1950s. Was there any interest in popular music there?
These people lived in the country, and so they sang a lot of country. I remember thinking it was wild to see Indians singing cowboy songs. It was just kind of an oxymoron in a way. I had a guitar my parents gave me that had a picture of a cowboy on it, and I was embarrassed to bring it to the reservation. But nobody cared. They would sing Lefty Frizzell songs beautifully. I remember listening to music by Marvin Rainwater, a country singer who is part Cherokee. It just made you think there are really no boundaries.
What about reservation life made a specific impression on you?
One of the things I recognized early on, that hearkens back to earlier days, is that they have such a respect for the gift, the Creator, for all the beautiful things in life. One time I was walking with one of my cousins by the Grand River, on the reservation, and I found in my pocket a little piece of gum. I took the wrapper just like if I was in the city and threw it in the water. Everyone stopped. They weren’t chastising me, but telling me with passion, you know, this is where we bathe; this is our connection to the earth. They gave me such a speech that I never did that again in my life.
I was surprised that I’d never heard the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker like this before. You write in the postscript that it was an influence on the authors of the United States Constitution.
The story isn’t a secret, but it’s not as well known because a lot of people, especially white people, think of Hiawatha as being the character in a Longfellow poem. Longfellow just got him mixed up with another figure and he didn’t know the story about the Peacemaker. Hiawatha is sort of like the equivalent of the Dalai Lama, a real person that you wouldn’t call by his real name. Before Hiawatha came along, war was all Indian nations ever knew. With the help of the Peacemaker, he brought the great law of peace, which has been abided for the last 500 years.
The story’s villain, Tadodaho, is depicted as a brutal killer. But he is ultimately forgiven after all of these terrible acts of war. What was your approach to humanizing such a character for children?
I didn’t compromise at all in the story. The character Tadodaho really struck me when I first heard the story. It was a bit scary. I wanted to show just how much of an evil badass he was, how he wore snakes in his hair. There were some elders I had been in touch with that consulted me on how to tell the story. You know, you can’t just publish something like this. You have to go to the elders and get their blessing. That’s why there isn’t a tremendous amount of literature out there already and people don’t know this famous story — probably why you’d never heard it before.
What was the process of asking for a blessing from the Native American community?
It’s a huge responsibility. I went through a similar thing when I wrote a song called “The Code of Handsome Lake.” A man named Chief Jake Thomas would recite the Code of Handsome Lake every year as a reminder — it’s a story of alcoholism — this Indian was dying from alcoholism and the only way out of his disease was to go and help other people with their problems. Chief Thomas gave me his blessings and contributed to the song by reciting the code on the recording. He’s passed away now, but he was an expert in the story of the Peacemaker.
Who did you consult about Hiawatha after Chief Thomas passed away?
Another woman, actually the first woman chief of Six Nations named Chief Roberta Jamieson. She’s someone I’m in touch with now and we just made arrangements with Abrams Books and Indigo’s Chapters to contribute 4,000 of my books to Indian nations throughout the country. That makes my day.
What kind of reaction did you get when sharing the story of Hiawatha with your own grandchildren?
I was waiting until my grandkids were old enough that you could talk about something like this story. There is real grownup violence and sadness, so I was trying not to impose anything too harsh on them. But my oldest grandkid, Donovan, is 10 years old now, and was born on my birthday — kind of a wonderful birthday present. He’s read the story and it’s made some kind of an impression.
What contemporary novels have impacted you recently?
I’m in the process of finishing up volume one of my autobiography, so I’ve been kind of shut off from anything else. When I’m deep in the creative process, I go to a place of solitude. I’m not influenced by anything, so I’m not walking on anyone else’s grass. But I recently read Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’ memoir. He’s such a wordsmith. And I have a book sitting here by an American Indian author, Sherman Alexie, War Dances. I’ll get to that as soon as I get through the woods.
Was there a time you felt like you could tell your mother that you’d made good on your declaration to become a storyteller?
I didn’t have to tell her that. But a couple of times I heard her singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to herself in the kitchen. I think she was proud of introducing me to the things that inspired me.