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November 12, 2010

Q&A: Mohawk Songwriter and Guitarist Robbie Robertson on Native American Music



Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) was already an accomplished songwriter and guitarist when Bob Dylan hired him and his friends to be his backup band for an upcoming tour. After Dylan went solo, Robertson and company adopted the name “The Band” — a moniker they were given during their time with Dylan. They went on to record classic songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek — both written by Robertson — and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Robertson is currently featured in NMAI’s exhibition, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture” in Washington, D.C. He spoke with NMAI about his Native American roots and how he first became interested in music.

How does your Mohawk heritage influence your music?

My interest in music began when I was a kid on the Six Nations Indian Reserve.  All my relatives seemed to play an instrument or sing, and I wanted to be part of that. And for me it was full circle having the opportunity to make two albums and be involved in two documentaries reflecting my heritage.

What were some of the challenges you faced at the beginning of
your music career as a Native American?

Just keeping in mind, "Be proud that you're an Indian but be careful who you tell."
How does Native American music challenge/influence/differ from
ideas of “mainstream music”?

Because it has a different soul and comes from an ancient place. It's the real roots music.
Who is your favorite Native American musician?

Peter La Farge, Black Lodge Singers, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix and Jesse Ed Davis to name a few.

What were you thinking as you went through NMAI's "Up Where We
Belong" during your recent visit?

What a beautiful tribute and it just made me feel proud.

How have perceptions of Native American musicians changed since
the beginning of your career?

There certainly are a lot more record companies distributing Native North American musicians’ work now. Artists like Buffy St Marie, Joanne Shenandoah, John Trudell, Link Wray and so many more have made a huge contribution to the awareness of Native musicians.

How would you describe the community of Native American musicians
are you friends with other artists featured in the exhibit?

Yes, I've known many of the over the years and it's a small community but with very strong connections.


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great article

Robbie Robertson is a hero of American music, and a heroic figure to Native Americans. When he talks about the music he grew up with on Six Nations Indian Reserve, it makes sense that he is able to bring such honesty to his music. The Band always sounded so earnest and pure, and Robertson's background and soul had everything to do with it. I am also a huge Levon Helm fan, of course. He is an inspiration to me when I am recording online drum tracks.

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