Professor Robynn Stilwell is here to talk about “the Robbie problem.”
“Robbie Robertson is a fascinating case study in this whole notion of musical authenticity,” says the Georgetown University associate professor of music. She will deliver this year’s Neumann Lecture at the University of Richmond focusing on the work, and the storytelling mythology, of Robertson, a legendary rock ‘n’ roll songwriter, guitarist and the former leader of The Band.
He’s not as prominent in the mainstream as he used to be — concentrating today on film soundtrack work for his pal, Martin Scorcese – but to many, Robertson, a Canadian with half-Mohawk and half-Ashkenazy Jewish roots, is one of the fathers of what has become Americana. At the same time, Stillwell notes, his nationality and some very public inter-Band feuding has caused some to question his authorship of such mythic Southern standards as “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
“Thanks largely to Levon Helm’s autobiography, Robbie’s become the villain in the story of The Band,” Stilwell says. “Since it was Levon who sang those great songs, people believed him when he disparaged Robbie [Helm died in 2012]. And it absolutely permeates the discussion today, that Robbie stole all these ideas from Levon.”
The problem, she explains, is that this has no basis in reality.
“People say that Levon must’ve had input because he was a Southerner [from Elaine, Arkansas] and these songs are so great at depicting Southern life … but there is absolutely no evidence to support that Levon wrote anything.” She also points out that later records by the Band, without Robbie, are pretty ordinary. “The songwriter is gone.”
As Stilwell will illustrate in her lecture, Robertson moved on from the Band to create work that was less commercial but just as fascinating for study; like his first solo album, 1987’s “Robbie Robertson,” where he created a concept album about American history that touched upon his Native-American roots. He followed this with “Storyville” about New Orleans, and “Music For the Native Americans,” all clearly personal statements that made art out of studying the past.
“One of the reasons Robertson is interesting is that on the flipside of The Band, when he starts making more overtly indigenous-based records, he’s accused of being inauthentic by the mainstream press, but the indigenous musical community seems to have loved it.” It turns out that they were less interested in authenticity than with the truth, she explains.
“When [Robertson] went to several tribal councils to ask permission to use music/instruments, he expected them to say, ‘be respectful, don’t change this,’ but instead, the approach was, ‘use this in a way that makes sense to you today. It’s always changed with the times,’ which is true. There’s a weird snobbery and fetishism about the idea of preserving such a tradition from the outside, as if the tradition is stuck in the past in amber and not allowed to change.”
Although it skipped 2021 because of coronavirus restrictions, the University of Richmond Department of Music has, every year since 2003, invited a distinguished academic music scholar to deliver the Neumann Lecture. According to its mission statement, these lectures “offer a further opportunity to expand the vision of [UR] as a locus for serious dialogue about music, the arts, and society.”
The annual speech is named in honor of violinist and music instructor Frederick Neumann, the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony who passed away in 1994. Professor Tammy Kernolde gave the 2020 Neumann lecture on the topic of “The Mythology of Post Racial America,” and the previous year saw Guthrie Ramsey of University of Pennsylvania speak on the early history of African-American music.
While Stilwell will focus on a single artist, she says her Neumann Lecture is really about larger issues.
“The topic really is musical authenticity. And what does authenticity mean?” Applied to a subject like Robertson, it’s a valid question, she says. “The ways in which he’s moved through several different areas, a lot of people find that suspicious and for me it just looks interesting.”
Attendance to the 2022 Neumann Lecture is free but advanced tickets are required through https://tickets.modlin.richmond.edu/neumann-lecture. The April 4 lecture begins at 7:30 p.m.