It is not a commonplace river.
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
IN the Deep South, they have a saying that the closer you get to the Mississippi River, the better the music is. Down there, music lovers can easily tell whether a hot lick comes from 50 miles east of the river or 50 miles west; whether, in other words, it is East Texas blues, Delta blues or Georgia hill blues. If it gets much farther away than that, folks don't much care to know about it.
Small wonder, then, that back in 1959 Jaime ("Robbie") Robertson, then a 16-year-old from Toronto, set off eagerly for points south, guitar in hand. "I was born to do it, man," Robertson recalls. "Born to pack my bag and be on my way down the Mississippi River. I was music-crazy, just a total music fanatic. I wanted to see all those places with those fantastic names. Chattanooga, Tenn.—wow! Shreveport, Lu-zee-ana —wow! I just couldn't wait to drive down that road, you know. All that good music came from there—Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Junior Parker—and they kept talking about those places in their music."
Over in Simcoe, Ont., a young butcher's helper and part-time bass-guitar player named Rick Danko felt a similar urge. Driving up to his parents' home one evening in a friend's Cadillac, he cried out: "I've got to leave tonight; it's now or never!" He borrowed a coat, packed and was gone. One by one, Garth Hudson in London, Ont., Richard Manuel in Stratford, Ont., and Levon Helm, down on a bare subsistence farm in Marvell, Ark. (pop. 1,200), were making similar plans. To Helm, it was especially urgent. "You get out of school in May, and that's when you've already started planting cotton. You work from there right through till September, and the only break jn there is the Fourth of July. I found out at about the age of twelve that the way to get off that stinking tractor, out of that 105-degree heat, was to get on that guitar."
Soon these five musical Huck Finns joined forces. As of the year 1970, they have played together for a decade. They have seen all the places that once sounded so magical. They have gathered up and stored a fair share of all that good music. Not only do they seem to know where all those hot licks come from, but they know where they should go.
For years, practicing together for as much as seven, eight, ten hours a day, they played one-night stands in grubby towns all over the South and Canada. Later, they played invisibly behind Bob Dylan at the peak of his fame, learning from him and teaching him something in return. Now, as The Band—an intentionally unpretentious title—they have come into their own. In the shifting, echoing cacophony of sound and sometimes fury that is the modern rock scene, The Band has now emerged as the one group whose sheer fascination and musical skill may match the excellence—though not the international impact—of the Beatles.
Trip or Treat