Robbie Robertson, founding member of The Band and award-winning solo artist, turns children’s book author to retell an Iroquois tale that inspired him as a child.
It takes no genius nor great imagination to suggest that Robbie Robertson has, for his entire storied, almost impossibly influential career in rock ‘n’ roll, stretched taut a wire between the sometimes swooning towers of the distant past and the infinite possibilities of all our tomorrows, great gales of scripture and sexuality, yearning and temptation, and an expansive constellation of colorful characters and unvarnished impulses threatening always to separate the walker from the line.
For half a century, first as a founding member (with Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson) of The Band, then as a solo artist (his sixth such collection due next spring), Robertson has consistently demonstrated his virtuosity, adventurousness, and versatility. He’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s lists of greatest artists and greatest guitar players of all time, collaborated frequently with filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and produced albums by artists like Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. All of Robertson’s work taps the world we can touch to articulate the things we cannot speak, his Mohawk and Cayuga heritage and childhood summers spent on the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, Canada providing frequent, if sometimes indirect, touchstone and inspiration for the artist’s cinematic aural brew – soundscapes seasoned with tribal embers and raindance motifs, smoky blues intertwining with plaintive melodies and a musical palette ranging from evocative to slinky to propulsive to noir-ish and then meditative, often within a single verse.
At 72, Robertson has published his first children’s book, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker (Abrams Books), a tale from the Iroquois oral tradition that he heard often in his youth from his mother’s family on the reservation. It is a crisp, resonant story about transformation, liberation, communion, and the ever-urgent reminder that violence is a choice beneath which we bury our freedom and peace. Complemented by the riveting oil paintings of Caldecott Honor-winning fine artist David Shannon, Robertson’s sentences pluck, thrum, and bend, vital and alive, intimate and panoramic at once.
On break from recording his forthcoming solo album – “a mirror, basically,” he says, to the autobiographical tome which will published next year, the new songs and the old stories interconnected – Robertson shines a light on the reasons stories matter and what centuries-old wisdom humankind might at last embrace.
You’ve been telling stories for decades with your songs, but this is your first solo outing as an author. Why now? Why this story?
Where this thing got stirred up, I had done some work on this other book, Legends, Icons, and Rebels, and it turned out to be a really wonderful experience. While I was in that process, this gentleman, Michael Jacobs, who is the head of Abrams Books and has said that he’s an admirer of mine, said to me one day, “Is there a story from when you were a kid that you heard that really had an influence on you?” It kind of sparked me and it got me thinking and that led me to this one story that did have quite an impact on me. When I told Michael the story, he said, “Yes, that’s the one. Go do it.”
The story you chose is of the 14th century Mohawk Hiawatha who comes to broker a lasting peace – one that helped set the stage for modern-day democracy – between the warring nations. Most Americans have never heard this piece of history before.
You’re right, and even if it weren’t a really great story – and a story that I heard many times during all of my childhood summers – that might still be a great reason to tell it again today. This is really the story of the Peacemaker, even though Hiawatha gets top billing. (Laughs) In Indian country, you refer to the Peacemaker like you would the Dalai Lama. You don’t refer to the Dalai Lama as Gregory or Harold; in honor and respect, we call him the Dalai Lama. Same thing with the Peacemaker, though his real name – Deganawida – is a beautiful one. The Peacemaker, he was onto something back then. He was a Gandhi kind of a dude, one of those people – a Martin Luther King Jr. – who comes along only God knows when and says, “No more war. No more killing. We’re going to stop all that. Let me show you another way.” And for hundreds and hundreds of years, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Which makes the book incredibly relevant in 2015.
Oh, sure! I think this is a story that, like the greatest stories, really bares retelling – not just now, but always. There’s always something to take from this story. What was the extraordinary punch line for me to the history of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, the whole story, was, that when the founding fathers of the United States were trying to figure out what kind of government they wanted to establish once they had freed themselves from the kings and queens, they went to the Chiefs, to the Iroquois Confederacy, and sought their counsel. The founding fathers were paying attention back then to the things the Nation had been practicing for a long time already: everybody has a voice, everybody gets a vote, leaders are chosen in unity, we follow the Great Law of Peace. The founding fathers were like, “Whoa! Historically, like in Greece a few hundred years ago, they tried democracy and it didn’t work. The leaders were overthrown and they went back to kings and queens. Maybe. . .hmm. . .should we give this thing a try?” (Laughs)
That was actually a few years ago. Was all of that time spent getting the story just right?
No. I’m not sure any artist spends all of the time between the things he shares with the public trying to get things right. A lot of that time is probably spent getting a lot of things wrong! (Laughs) With this book, even as the story I wanted to tell became clearer and clearer to me, I started getting very busy with other things – to the point where I really didn’t know how or when I would be able to write the book. And then my son, Sebastian (who in 2013 penned Rock and Roll Highway, a children’s book about his father’s life and career), he kind of reeled me back into this thing, and said “No, no, no. You really have to make time for this. You have to do this. This is a beautiful thing.” I don’t know that I could’ve – or would have – gotten this done without him.
That’s beautiful. Perhaps Wordsworth was right: child is the father of man.
I like that. That sounds like something Bono would say! (Laughs) So it really was Sebastian not only lighting a fire in me but, because of his pride, his love for his cultural heritage, he also was really invested in this story being told. Finally, Sebastian said to me, “I’m going to sit down and help you with this. We are going to get this done!”
Or you’ll be sent to bed without supper!
Right! (Laughs) So Sebastian started doing a bunch of research. He re-read some books about these people that I read a long time ago, and then he’d share all of that with me, and then that would move my memories of the story around a little bit, and we finally got it written. But then came the question of: Who’s going to illustrate this thing?
Well, you only landed one of the best living illustrators and storytellers for children, David Shannon.
You’ve got that right. I went to my publisher and, just because I can boldly talk like this because I’ve had a little bit of experience, I’ve been around, I said, “Who would be the best person in the world to illustrate this book?” And they looked at me like I was crazy, and said, “In the world?” And I was, like, “Yeah. Let’s start at the top. At least we’re reaching for the sky.” They came back to me a few days later, having gone through I don’t know how many options, and they gave me this book, The Rough-Face Girl. There’s this painting on the front of the book, and it just slayed me.
But it’s never that easy, right – finding what you want and just taking it?
You’re right about that. So I’m looking at this painting on the cover of the book. The artist is David Shannon, and I thought, “Oh my God! This picture gives me chills and goosebumps and it’s amazing. This is the guy!” But my publisher said, “The problem with David Shannon is, you’ll never get this guy. He does his own books now. He’s working with Disney. He created some of the characters in Rango. He’s booked for years. It’s not going to happen.”
That doesn’t sound like the kind of answer Robbie Robertson is inclined to accept.
Well, I said to my publisher, “Maybe he’d meet with me for a few minutes and maybe he’s got an idea about who would be the best artist for this little book of mine.” I figured, if David Shannon is this good, I’d love to have his advice at least. So we convinced David to make a little bit of time one afternoon and come see me, and I was ready for him. I had the story all practiced and ready to go and I was set up to play him a rough version of this song I wrote for the book (which is included as a bonus CD).
There are not a lot of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers doing auditions these days.
Well, I wanted to do right by this story. I figured David might have some useful advice for the book, but I was really hoping he’d just say yes and do the book. But it’s also not bad for an artist to be in that position, no matter how many years he’s been doing something. A lot of times in a long career, you’re playing music that you really hope people will love as much as you love it, but you never really know anything about the people who are listening. With David, I was playing for someone I didn’t know, but whose work I profoundly admired. I was the fan. He was the artist. I wouldn’t want to live in that position, but it was good to be there for a day. And, of course, David found some time in his schedule to do the book. (Laughs)
You were stirred deeply by David Shannon’s paintings for The Rough-Face Girl. At 72, are you moved more or less easily by works of art, be they paintings or writings or music?
Well, I’m a lucky guy. I have a lot of friends – a lot of close friends that are incredible artists of today. It’s not because I’m out there seeking people who do great art or because they’re out there seeking someone to fall at their feet – though a lot of we artists may do that occasionally! (Laughs) It’s just that they’re using their experiences to create their art and I’m doing the same thing and somehow there’s this kind of connection, you know. Some worlds come together and it just feels right. I am incredibly inspired by art in the world. I am incredibly inspired by the art I find in the world, by the art my friends bring into this world. They tell me they feel the same way about my stuff. So I’m moved as least as deeply as I ever was by these things. They inspire me – the people and the art.
Rock music has never shied away from making bold declarations. One of them, of course, is about needing nothing more in life than three chords and the truth. Does that sound about right to you? Does that still get the job done?
That sounds just about right to me. Then again, I’ve operated for 50 years with one chord and half a truth, so. . .(Laughs)
Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Your connection to the Hiawatha story, culturally speaking, is clear. I’m wondering, though, what’s the connection or correlation between Robbie Robertson today and Hiawatha and the Peacemaker of centuries ago?
That is an excellent question. And I sure wish I had an excellent answer for you! (Laughs) I think about this: as a human race, we tend to celebrate so many people who did truly awful things. We memorize their names and their faces and the things they did, the cruelty, the abomination. They just weren’t nice people, but here we are celebrating them. I think it’s important, meaningful, to shine your light and pay your respects to those who have brought beautiful things into the world. For the Six Nations, some of those beautiful things are shared in my book. These people, they walked in beauty’s way. I try to do that. I really do. And maybe that effort is something that connects me to this story. It ain’t easy to be a Peacemaker, you know, and it ain’t always easy to stay in beauty’s way. But we try.