‘I felt embarrassingly unaware of what he did’: The Band’s Robbie Robertson on meeting Bob Dylan

Beginning in the middle 1960s, Robbie Robertson and the rest of the Band became indelibly linked with Bob Dylan. Thing is, though, they actually knew very little about the man — or his music — prior to that. Robertson and company had come up around a rough-and-randy rockabilly aesthetic with Ronnie Hawkins, far away from something so genteel as folk.

“We didn’t have much of a background in folk music, only in like some obscure mountain music we were interested in — the Carter Family or things like that,” Robertson tells WGBH. “Folk music was from a different side of the tracks, and then that was happening in coffee houses and we were in bars. We were on a much more dangerous side of town than they were. And so when we did get the call from Bob Dylan, I felt embarrassingly unaware of what he did. There was kind of a folk thing happening, we knew about that — but it wasn’t on our agenda, really.”

And yet that didn’t make their introduction — prior to Robertson and the group then known as the Hawks becoming Dylan’s backing group on his groundbreaking initial electric tours — awkward at all: “When I went to meet with Bob, I was trying my best not to let on how unknowledgeable in all of this,” Robertson admits. “Then pretty soon I realized, when I talked about influences, it didn’t matter to him that much at all. He really didn’t care if we knew about what he had done in the past — because he was thinking about something new anyway.”

Dylan proceeded to pull out a series of songs by artists that, truth be told, might not have appealed to Robertson — had they not been interpreted in Dylan’s inimitable fashion.

“I remember in some cases he played me some music and I didn’t care for it very much,” Robertson admits, “but when he sang those songs or did those songs, I liked it. He also had a way of singing other people’s songs and making it sound like he wrote it, early on. Before I became a little bit more aware of different people’s songs in the folk music area. But I liked the idea that he had no idea what he had in mind — only that he wanted to just mix it up and try some stuff.”

A musical relationship that would spur both Dylan and the Band to previously unimagined heights was born.

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