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Robbie Robertson: Native-American experience in music

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July 6, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)

(CNN) -- If a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters is any indication, Robbie Robertson is surely one of rock music's true legends.

Known from his early days as a guitarist with Bob Dylan, through his critically acclaimed work with The Band and later as a successful solo artist, he's now embarked on a musical journey that's taken him to the heart of his Native-American roots. Among his recent endeavors is "Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy" (Capitol Records). At its release in March 1998, it was his first album in three years.

"It made me look like I all of a sudden stumbled upon my heritage," Robertson says. "It's not like that. You don't stumble upon your heritage. It's there, just waiting to be explored and shared. But what you need is a sign that somebody wants to share this with you."

Robertson has shared his heritage in part through the music of "The Native Americans," a TBS documentary that highlighted the culture from the native point of view, and in another such piece for PBS, "Robbie Robertson: Making a Noise," about the artist's visit to the Six Nations Reservation. He was raised at Six Nations, by his mother of Mohawk descent.

"There was a consensus," he says, "that it was so great to do something that represented the heartbeat of today, of right now. That the 'Indian thing' wasn't being looked at like, 'Oh, yes, they were a great people, they used to be able to do that,' or something for movies. Or just all of those images that people have, you know, wherever the stereotypical thing comes from. To be able to say, 'No, no, this is alive, kicking -- people in the native community are as much connected with today as anybody else is.'


"The Code of Handsome Lake"
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"Ghost Dance"
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[155k MPEG-3] or [210k WAV]

(Courtesy Capitol Records)

Passing it on

"I love traditional music. But in any culture around the world, there is the historic and cultural music and everything that's been passed down and passed down, and hopefully you take that, and then you take it, you know, the next distance, and then somebody else takes it the next distance. Hopefully it evolves enough in an experimental and hopefully magical kind of way."

The title "Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy" is based, in part, on Robertson's experience.

"The native music of North America, the original-roots music of this country, is also the underworld music of this country. It's hard to believe that this would be the most obscure music in all of North America at the same time (it's) the original music of North America. So I'm saying, you know, this is just making a connection with this original underworld. And the "red boy" thing was the first and only derogatory term that I've ever been called in my life. What was said was some kind of hatred, and it just stayed with me all my life.

"And because when I was working on this record and thinking, 'I want to be honest about this, and I want to explore these things, and I want to get some of this stuff out that I've been carrying around with me all my life.'

"It was about things that are happening now that I wanted to address now. It was the way that I feel today and the way that I hear it today. And to be able to do that truthfully, without any interference, anybody saying, 'Oh, well, don't forget this.' This was just, like, you know -- this is straight from the way I feel it.

"I remember from my earliest years," says Robbie Robertson, "people speaking, you know, in a certain kind of rhythm and telling stories and sharing experiences in a way that was different in Indian country than it was other places. And I was really struck by this and obviously very affected by it, because it's always come out in my songs."

Robbie Robertson honored with lifetime achievement award
May 26, 1998
Rock legends come together for museum launch
September 2, 1995

Robbie Robertson official site
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