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.