In my grandmother’s later years, whenever The Honeymooners would come on the television she’d remark that it was hard to imagine the cast all gone when they’re just so alive on the screen. I think of this today as I listen to the music of The Band, and think of Robbie Robertson (1943 – 2023), Levon Helm (1940 – 2012), Rick Danko (1943 – 1999), and Richard Manuel (1943 – 1986). The music of The Band has greatly influenced me and to my work as a musician, and it’s hard to imagine they’re no longer with us. This article and thoughts are inspired by the death of Robbie Robertson, who passed away on August 9th.
I had the great fortune to see Levon Helm a number of times before he lost his battle with cancer, and thanks to my cousins I was able to hear Robertson speak at the premier of his film “Once Were Brothers.” I cherish these moments I got to share with the legendary members of The Band as a fan. It should be noted that member Garth Hudson is still alive, and my condolences go to him for the loss of his band-mates. The Band’s impact on the world of music has been immense, and they will live on in their work – and will always be, to me, very much alive whenever I play their records.
For those unfamiliar with The Band, I’ll do my best to provide a very brief history. The band was predominately Canadian ensemble, with Levon Helm being the only American-born member of the group – this detail makes their impact on Americana music all the more fascinating. The group started as “the Hawks” in 1958, backing rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins. Later in the 1960s they famously backed Bob Dylan when he went electric, and they toured with the icon as he was booed by fans and dismissed by critics. When they parted ways with Mr. Dylan, they adopted the name “The Band,” moved into a large pink house in upstate New York, and proceeded to create some of the most influential folk rock in the history of the genre.
The Band ended their tenure again with a tour and a recorded last concert titled “The Last Waltz,” and while the band would reform later in the 1990s without Robbie Robertson, The Band as it was had ended. Unfortunately the relationship between the members deteriorated due to disputes over copyright. Robertson was credited as the writer on many of the songs, allowing him greater royalties. Levon Helm was the loudest in protesting this, insisting the songs were all collaborations and Robertson’s claiming the creative lion’s share was wrong. Unfortunately this controversy pervaded the rest of the members’ lives. Levon Helm wrote a memoir addressing his feelings on the copyright controversy in 1993, while Robertson created a film in 2019 where he offered his interpretation of events.
Levon Helm went on to have a successful solo career and win two Grammy awards for “Dirt Farmer,” (2007) and “Electric Dirt.” (2009). Robbie Robertson went on to collaborate with Martin Scorsese on films and have a successful career of his own while continuing to produce his own music.
Mark Caserta and I recorded a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” back in July of 2022. You can listen to our rendition on YouTube. Like with many of these recordings, I am performing the acoustic guitar and vocals live and Mark is adding in the accompanying instruments after. On this track he is playing electric guitar, bass guitar, organ, and drums. “The Weight” is part of The Band’s 1968 debut album titled “Music From Big Pink.” I hope you enjoy it.