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.