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6 March 2024

Robbie Robertson’s sounds of America

In the Sixties, the Canadian musician defined Americana. On his score for Killers of the Flower Moon, he blew it up.

By Aidan Monks

The Canadian musician Robbie Robertson died in August 2023, only two months before his 12th collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon, was released in cinemas. The film, which chronicles the real-life serial murders of members of the Osage Nation tribe over their oil-rich land, currently holds Oscar nominations in ten categories, including a posthumous nod for his score, and is dedicated to Robertson.

Robertson’s music has become synonymous with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s: the folk music revival (and its electrification), the radical New Hollywood, and the “paranoid style” of American politics after the death of JFK. His roots rock group the Band, through their own records and their collaborations with Bob Dylan, helped raise Americana music as we know it today – the imagery, myths and sounds that define the mid-century United States. Those who are not directly familiar with his work will likely still have some relationship to it: maybe they’ve seen Dylan’s naive cover art for the Band’s album Music from Big Pink, or recognise their most famous tracks (“The Weight”) roaring like a digital fireplace in the background of family gatherings, on Spotify’s Dad Rock mix. They may not remember the song names, but Robertson’s melodies endure.

Robbie Robertson was raised between Toronto and the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, where his mother, Rosemarie, who was of Cayuga and Mohawk descent, lived until she was 16. On the reserve, he was surrounded by music: “I’m sitting there and my relatives are all sitting around with their instruments and singing and breathing. One guy would start a rhythm and then somebody would start singing a melody to that, and it was just haunting,” he recalled at the end of his life. “That feeling of the music beside you like that, humming and droning and the groove of the feel of it – all of that getting under your skin – it goes to that place, and it lives there forever.”

At age 15, he ventured south on a train from Canada to Arkansas to join the rowdy rockabilly group Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Hawkins, a prolific talent scout, was responsible for introducing the musicians who would eventually comprise the bands Levon and the Hawks, the Hawks (Dylan’s backing group during his infamous electric tour), and finally the Band. It was through Levon Helm, who was raised in the Arkansas hamlet of Turkey Scratch, and Helm’s parents that Robertson absorbed the spiritual kernel of the South. He had abandoned Toronto in search of the American mythos encapsulated by the patron saints of early rock, but the tragedies, joys and rituals of the region he learned from the Helms.

Some were surprised that a Canadian could render these national themes for American listeners. Robertson spoke to this point in his touching 2016 memoir Testimony, and in a 1995 interview in which he explained: “It took somebody coming in from the outside to really see these things.” In the anti-war anthem “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he chronicled the origins of Southern attitudes after the Reconstruction era. He read America like a text, with Helm as his guide, unearthing a vision of progressive politics in the margins of American culture.

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With the Band, Robertson wrote for a polyphony of voices (Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko), layering harmonies alongside Garth Hudson’s virtuosic organ to create a gospel-like sound, juxtaposed with Robertson’s bluesy lead guitar. Their style was plural: a melting pot of bluegrass, Delta, rockabilly, soul and the colourful cocktail of genres at the roots of rock ’n’ roll. The Band’s songs were retro and relevant, hungry for change yet steeped in local history and musical heritage.

After the Band’s break-up concert in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco – immortalised by Scorsese’s rockumentary The Last Waltz (1978) – Robertson’s ear turned to his own roots. Indigenous themes began to surface in his work following his solo debut (1987), most notably on Music for the Native Americans. His defiant ballad “Ghost Dance” – written with Jim Wilson – directly references the Wounded Knee Massacre, as if weeping for the brutalisation of the Lakota tribe. Where Robertson’s lyrics for the Band were observational, here they are profoundly introspective.

In many ways, Killers of the Flower Moon was the project Robertson had been waiting for. Not only does Scorsese’s film centre on the persecution of the Osage people and the sadistic genesis of the American Century, but it is also an epic Western. (Robertson – a self-described “film buff” – was an admirer of Howard Hawks and John Ford.) Having worked as a music supervisor on Scorsese’s films – celebrated for their soundtracks – as far back as 1980’s Raging Bull, Robertson’s skills as a composer were finally recognised with 2019’s The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon. Both are brooding, genre-bending compositions, but the latter is highly experimental in its panoptic world-building and dramatic force. Scorsese has called it one of the most beautiful scores in cinema, and certainly one of the best written for any of his films.

Unable to read or write music, Robertson was an atypical composer who brought the trial-and-error informalities of band process to the score. Instrumentalists gathered at his Los Angeles studio to piece together the film’s sound; Robertson’s ambition was to avoid stereotyping the Osage Nation sonically while incorporating their musical traditions, and he regularly conferred with Osage musicians during the film’s principal photography. The score’s most unexpected innovation comes with the dirty rock guitar of “Osage Oil Boom” in the opening sequence, accompanied by rollicking percussion, immediately flagging that this is a Western (and a portrait of indigenous Americans) unlike anything a Hollywood film has produced before. The tension of Robertson’s throbbing two-note bass motif (“Heartbeat Theme/Ni-U-Kon-Ska”) offers momentum for the film’s epic three-and-a-half-hour runtime, bringing a sense of impending horror. But Robertson’s characteristic fusion of styles subverts expectations. Indigenous American pan flutes, drums and vocals bleed around genre-typical harmonicas and finger-style guitar themes as Osage deaths rack up, and the homicidal foundations of American hegemony are laid bare. This fusion of genre tropes annihilates audiences’ assumptions about Westerns and indigenous culture.

It feels fitting that Robertson’s score for Killers of the Flower Moon was his last. The film’s preoccupations – with American fictions, indigenous rights and systemic abuse – map on to his own in later life. In one of his final interviews, Robertson could hardly believe where his collaborations with Scorsese had brought them: “Now Marty and I are both 80 years old, and we’re getting to do a Western. We’re getting to do a movie about Indians, in our own way,” he told Variety. “Its soul is from Indian country… You couldn’t have made something like this up. This is so magical.”

Robertson died of prostate cancer two weeks after this interview surrounded by family members, who announced his last request on social media: donations to the Six Nations of the Grand River, in lieu of flowers.  

[See also: Sibelius’s symphony without sequel]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

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