Six String Nation
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.