In some ways, even historical retellings of the expulsion of the French from their Canadian homeland fail to capture the deeper emotional truths of displacement quite like the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”
This was a pilgrimage that Robbie Robertson himself traced, probably at first without really recognizing it, in his earliest days as a musician — traveling from his birthplace to the Deep South, much as a people eventually known as the Cajuns once did. It gave the Toronto native, as this late-period gem makes clear, an expansive perspective from which to compose. “Acadian Driftwood” would become the centerpiece on 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross, and a lasting late-period reminder of the Band’s collective brilliance.
“The parallel,” Robertson tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “is unmistakable. I would’ve never thought of this, without taking my own journey into consideration. But in my attraction to the underdog in historic stories, the Acadians were way up there on my list.”
Acadia had been founded as a French Colony just after 1600, and originally included Nova Scotia, parts of present-day Quebec and Maine, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. By 1710, however, the British had moved in. When many of the French living there refused to sign an oath of allegiance, they were ultimately expelled, beginning in the mid-1750s. Some 11,500 Acadians were flushed from their native lands as the French and Indian War ignited, under the guise of quelling dissent.
Many chose to settle in the former French colony of Louisiana — an epic trek which was, perhaps most famously, recounted in “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. That 1840s poem serves as a key structural inspiration for Robertson’s “Acadian Driftwood.” He takes creative liberties along the way, much as he did with a similarly fashioned “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” (For instance, the song begins not at the beginning of the war — when the Acadians were actually expelled — but at the end.) Still, in both cases, Robertson’s underdog tale isn’t anchored in a concrete outline but in the intimate narrative of someone whom history has cast out, someone made an enemy in his own country.
On a deeper level, Robertson probably understands better than most the idea of living as a stranger in a strange land, being of both Jewish and Mohawk descent. (There’s a direct reference to this, in fact, as part of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” from a little over a decade later.) That personal dimension, once again, adds a special resonance as historical markers appear along the way — from the Battle at the Plains of Abraham, a key moment in the French and Indian War; to that “gypsy tail wind” pushing the now suddenly nomadic Acadians to their new homes; to a final, delicately conveyed section in French.
“Acadian Driftwood” places itself among the Band’s major works, however, inside the communal interpretive brilliance of Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Together, they completed one of Robertson’s most enthralling quests to frame history within an individual narrative, to conjoin generations, to give shape and heft to mythology in song.
Musically, “Acadian Driftwood” is driven by distinctly French-Canadian atmospherics, from Garth Hudson’s reliably brilliant layering of piccolo, keyboard and accordion to Byron Berline’s nostalgic fiddle. Those sounds are braided just as perfectly as Robertson’s lyrics. But the moon pulling this track’s ancient tides remains those voices — perfectly woven, perfectly cast, perfectly conjugative. They personify the many, and the one, in Robertson’s complex tale of alienation and redemption. They breathe very real life into his words.
By the time it’s over, “Acadian Driftwood” has revealed itself as one of the five-man lineup’s final aggregate triumphs.