How Robbie Robertson’s hidden Indigenous and Jewish heritage influenced The Band’s mournful songs

The word “mythic” appears in nearly every appraisal of the recently deceased Robbie Robertson’s immense contribution to popular music. As the New York Times phrased it in the announcement of his death Wednesday, “The chief composer and lead guitarist for The Band offered a rustic vision of America that seemed at once mythic and authentic.” Robertson’s music with The Band, featuring Levon Helm on drums and vocals, poured the foundation for the construction of the genre with the awkward name Americana. Everyone from Bob Dylan, who briefly employed The Band as his backup group, to Lucinda Williams cites The Band as essential to their musical formation. Robertson was Canadian, and yet his exploration of America’s diverse musical terrain – rock and roll, gospel, blues, country, jazz – emerged as one of the most definitive.

The irony does not end with Robertson’s Canadian origin. During his most influential years with The Band, Robertson was living his own myth. “I never talked about my heritage much,” Robertson told an interviewer in 2017 while promoting the publication of his memoir “Testimony.” His mother was Indigenous, having spent her childhood years on a Six Nations Reserve outside of Toronto. She told her son, “Be proud that you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” Having spent time in a school – not a residential one, but still oppressive – that tried to “take the Indian out of the Indian,” Robertson’s mother was painfully aware of the threat of racism. She indicated to Robertson that outwardly expressing his Indigenous ancestry would invite hatred, harassment and eventually lead to his exclusion from institutions and networks crucial to mainstream success. 

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Tom Vazquez

Tom Vazquez is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Tom Vazquez joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Tom Vazquez by emailing

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