Six String Na­tion

Geist - - Randy Reports -

Rob­bie Robert­son’s new book, Tes­ti­mony: A Mem­oir (2016), is not only a great ac­count of Robert­son’s life and mu­si­cal ca­reer, but also a down-toearth, straight-ahead read. I can’t help com­par­ing it with Bruce Spring­steen’s mem­oir, Born to Run, pub­lished around the same time. It’s a much more de­tached, philo­soph­i­cal ac­count, and his over-anal­y­sis of un­fold­ing events takes away from his story.

Jaime Royal “Rob­bie” Robert­son spent sum­mers with his mother’s fam­ily on the Six Na­tions Re­serve in On­tario, and learned to play the gui­tar there. He was a brave kid who left home at age six­teen to play music, and be­fore long he was in­vited to join Ron­nie Hawkins’ backup band. The ex­pe­ri­ence sharp­ened his gui­tar play­ing and put him in touch with those who later be­came his band­mates in the fa­mous group, the Band. He also met Bob Dy­lan, and per­formed with him in the 1965–66 World Tour. They played two sets, one acous­tic with Dy­lan, the other plugged in with both mu­si­cians, and at ev­ery show they were booed by fans who could not ac­cept Dy­lan go­ing elec­tric.

Robert­son was play­ing with the Hawks (which later be­came the Band) when Bob Dy­lan lived in Wood­stock, New York. There they worked to­gether to record the “Base­ment Tapes,” and wrote much of the highly ac­claimed al­bum Music From Big Pink (1968). This launched the Band’s ca­reer into many more years of in­flu­en­tial al­bums, and play­ing with Carly Si­mon, Em­my­lou Har­ris, Ringo Starr, Neil Di­a­mond, Joni Mitchell and many more of the best rock and blues mu­si­cians in the busi­ness. Robert­son’s gui­tar play­ing con­tin­ues to­day to in­flu­ence gui­tarists around the world. Eric Clap­ton, Ge­orge Har­ri­son and other cel­e­brated mu­si­cians have noted his in­flu­ence on their gui­tar play­ing. Next year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the re­lease of the Band’s movie, The Last Waltz. Robert­son’s ex­cel­lent ac­count about the mak­ing of the film is an­other good rea­son to read Tes­ti­mony.

Jesse Ed Davis was an­other great Abo­rig­i­nal guitarist, a full-blooded Kiowa/co­manche who played with Taj Ma­hal, three of the Bea­tles, Leonard Co­hen, Ry Cooder and other gi­ants of blues and folk, and even some ob­scure mu­si­cians. One of his last gigs was with John Trudel, fa­mous for his rad­i­cal in­volve­ment with the Amer­i­can In­dian Move­ment.

Duane All­man cred­its Davis for in­flu­enc­ing the sound of the All­man Broth­ers Band. Many gui­tarists give him credit for teach­ing them rock, coun­try and blues tech­niques. Davis played lead gui­tar and pi­ano on Taj Ma­hal’s Gi­ant Step/de Old Folks at Home and John Len­non’s Rock ’n’ Roll. I have gone through sev­eral copies of each of th­ese records on vinyl, and they con­tinue to be in my top ten al­bums of all time.

Like Rob­bie Robert­son, Jesse Ed Davis never learned how to read music. He claimed he played gui­tar notes that sounded good to him, and he played pi­ano by ear.

An­other in­flu­en­tial Abo­rig­i­nal mu­si­cian was Can­dido “Lolly” Ve­gas, guitarist for Red­bone, a band that came to­gether in 1969. Lolly and his brother, Pat, bassist for Red­bone, got their start in Hol­ly­wood after Pat won the first ever Coca-cola singing con­test. They played a lot on the Las Ve­gas strip through the 1960s, and worked with Tina Turner, James Brown and Elvis, among many oth­ers. I be­lieve that’s where Lolly re­fined his gui­tar tech­nique. You can hear the jazz in­flu­ence in the va­ri­ety of gen­res they recorded.

The name Red­bone is a Ca­jun term for “mixed race.” Lolly and Pat were Yaqui/shoshone/mex­i­can. They in­cor­po­rated many Ca­jun terms into their lyrics, and they were the first Na­tive Amer­i­can rock/ca­jun group to have a No. 1 sin­gle in the United States and in­ter­na­tion­ally. Jimi Hen­drix claimed Lolly was his favourite guitarist and Pat his favourite bassist. Like Robert­son and Davis, the Ve­gas broth­ers played with, recorded with and in­flu­enced many other mu­si­cians. I have found it im­pos­si­ble to find a de­cent copy of Red­bone’s dou­ble vinyl al­bum set, Red­bone. The ones I have pur­chased from used record shops al­ways have “pop­corn”—the pop­ping sounds caused by small scratches on vinyl. I like to think the pop­corn in­di­cates heavy use of those records.

The late Johnny Paull, of Squamish Na­tion, also crossed paths with many fa­mous mu­si­cians, es­pe­cially blues­men. He once turned down an of­fer to tour with Al­bert Collins so he could stay home with his wife and children. Johnny was part of the well-known Whyte Feather Band in BC, who never recorded an al­bum be­cause they played cov­ers. When Johnny first started per­form­ing in a band he was so shy that he played gui­tar with his back to the au­di­ence. But as with other ac­com­plished mu­si­cians, his style was nat­u­ral. Johnny died in 2013, but he con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence up-and-com­ing Abo­rig­i­nal gui­tarists in the Lower Main­land of BC, and beyond.

Rock, blues, jazz and other gen­res of pop­u­lar music are richer for the con­tri­bu­tions of th­ese and other in­flu­en­tial Abo­rig­i­nal gui­tarists. Rock on, broth­ers!

Randy Fred is a Nuu-chah-nulth Elder. He is the founder of They­tus Books, the first Abo­rig­i­nal-owned and op­er­ated book pub­lish­ing house in Canada. He has worked in pub­lish­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for forty years. He has won gold at the Cana­dian Na­tional Blind Lawn Bowl­ing Cham­pi­onships five times. He lives in Nanaimo.

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