The Secret Jewish History of Robbie Robertson and The Band

Posted on December 4th, 2016
Seth Rogovoy for The Jewish Daily Forward

Of the many revealing moments in Robbie Robertson’s terrific new memoir, “Testimony” (Crown Archetype), one stands out for what it says about the legacy of the esteemed, influential rock group, the Band, for which Robertson served as chief songwriter and guitarist; what it says about Robertson’s relationship with his fellow Band-mate, Levon Helm, with whom he sometimes vied for leadership of the group; and what it implies about Robertson’s sense of self-identification.

Tired of the heckling and booing to which the musicians were subjected on a nightly basis while touring as Bob Dylan’s backup band (at the time still known as the Hawks) on the latter’s first electric tour (chronicled in a new, massive 36-CD collection called “Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings”), Levon Helm confronted Robertson one night to tell him was leaving the group. Robertson recounts the moment: [Helm said,] “I don’t like this damn music. I don’t trust Albert Grossman and these people. And I don’t wanna be around Bob Dylan and all these New York…” Helm didn’t finish the thought, but the implication was clear. Not for the first time and not for the last, Helm, born and bred in rural Arkansas, was about to let loose with an anti-Semitic epithet. The only thing that stopped him, in this case, from completing the phrase “New York Jews,” was that his interlocutor was pretty much one of “them.”

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