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Writing Controversy Rests with Robbie Robertson

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Robbie Robertson was a pioneer of Americana Music

Music legend Robbie Robertson, regarded as a pioneer of what is now known as Americana, has died at the age of 80. And he takes with him to the grave one of the biggest controversies of modern song-writing.

As a founding member of The Band - one of the most innovative groups in popular music - Robertson took full credit for writing such ground-breaking songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Stage Fright.”

But other founding members of the Band - drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson - always insisted such songs were a collaborative effort across the group and writing royalties should have been shared.

The campaign was led by Helm, himself a legendary solo artist. He would die in 2012 but not before he would long rail against Robertson, even claiming in his 1993 biography This Wheel’s on Fire that Robbie was responsible for the break-up of The Band – their famous last concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 being filmed by Martin Scorsese for his masterpiece The Last Waltz.

Helm felt somewhat justified for his contempt. After all, he was the lead vocalist on two of Robertson’s finest songs – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “ Up on Cripple Creek.” And as the only Southerner in The Band - indeed the only American - it is certainly conceivable that he may have had a big influence in telling the story of a fictional farmer Virgil Caine’s life in the last year of the American civil war.

In his biography, he was quite specific about being involved in writing with Robertson: “Robbie and I worked on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”

In fact, Robertson himself acknowledges that the inspiration for the actual song came when Levon took him to meet his parents in Arkansas. Helm’s father captivated Robbie with stories of the South and the changes brought about there by the Civil War. Robertson told SirusXM in 2019: “And he said to me, he said Robin (he called me Robin), he said Robin ‘the South is going to rise again.’ It sent chills through me.”

Whoever the author, the song remains one of the greatest ballads ever written and rightfully sits in various Best of All Time Song lists.

The song’s opening stanza is a lyrical gem which perfectly introduces the listener to an historic setting in Danville, Virginia, in 1865 when General George Stoneman led his Union cavalry behind Confederate lines to attack the rail infrastructure:

Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville Train

Until Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again

In the winter of 65, we were hungry, just barely alive

By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s time I remember oh so well

Robertson’s art as a clever story-teller was no more apparent than in “The Weight,” off The Band’s stunning debut album Music From Big Pink and listed at 41 in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Any line-by-line examination of the lyrics reveals a creative gem from Robertson, no more so than the very opening:

I pulled into Nazareth

Was feeling about half past dead

The story goes that when Robertson was strumming his 1951 Martin D-28 guitar looking for a tune to hang a song on, he glanced at the interior of the instrument and saw a stamp saying: Manufactured in Nazareth, Pennsylvania (C.F. Martin & Company). So Nazareth, the home of Martin guitars, became the town at the centre of the song, and not, as many believe, where Jesus was born.

And once again, Helm not only leads off the vocals but plays a pivotal role in in the construction of this song, which is largely based on real characters known to members of The Band. Take this line for instance:

Well Luke my friend, what about young Anna Lee?

He said: Do me a favour son, won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company

In his biography, Helm explained that Anna Lee was indeed an old friend of his called Anna Lee Amsden.

So what about this?

When I saw Carmen and the devil walking side by side

I said hey Carmen come on, let’s go downtown

She said I gotta go, but my friend can stick around

Again, Helm stated that Carmen was from his hometown of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Hardly a genuine reason for a co-credit, but another example of the collaborative nature of the song-writing.

Of all Robertson’s work, it is “Stage Fright” – the title track to The Band’s third album - which could rank as a masterpiece. As the title implies, the song relates to performing and many regard it as the finest song ever composed about the art.

There had been speculation that Robertson had been inspired by his old boss Bob Dylan and the time of Dylan’s motorcycle accident in the late 60’s when he stopped touring. But it is now accepted that it is about Robbie’s own demons onstage and in particular the eve of The Band’s debut live performance - without Dylan - at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1969.

The opening stanza is loaded with personal imagery:

Now Deep in the heart of a lonely kid

Who suffered so much for what he did

They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame

Since that day he ain’t been the same

But Robertson’s songs were not all brow-beating. “Up on Cripple Creek” has its roots in the deep South – Lake Charles, Louisiana, to be precise – and tells the tale of a truck driver infatuated by a local girl named Bessie, even though he has a “big mama” back home.

And this living off the road is getting pretty old

So I guess I’ll call up my big mama

Tell her I’ll be rolling in

But you know, deep down, I’m kinda tempted

To go and see my Bessie again

And given, this was a song about Southerners, it is not surprising that Robertson asked Helm to holler out the lyrics.

Over the years Robertson was constantly asked about the writing controversy. His most assertive response came in a Rolling Stone article in 2000.

"I wrote songs before I even met Levon," the lead guitarist said. "I'm sorry, I just worked harder than anybody else. Somebody has to lead the charge, somebody has to draw the map. The guys were responsible for the arrangements, but that's what being a band is, that's your fucking job."

The royalties-issue with Helm, and indeed the other band members – only Garth Hudson now remains – were never really resolved, But the forgiving nature of Robertson was such that he made a special effort to visit Levon in hospital shortly before his passing.

Robertson died in Los Angeles after a long illness. His long-time manager Jared Levine issued a statement saying he was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife Janet and ex-wife Dominique.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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