Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, by Sebastian Robertson (2014): Books

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Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, a new children’s picture book focusing on the Band’s lead songwriter and guitarist, starts at the end. Well, at the end of the Band, anyway.

We find Robbie Robertson standing in a circle of light, bidding farewell to fans at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, Thanksgiving night 1976 — a risky move that pays off handsomely as Sebastian Robertson seeks to frame his father’s sweeping impact. The Last Waltz, a Martin Scorsese-directed concert film from that night, went on to become one of rock’s most celebrated documentaries — and it began in much the same way.

We’re reminded, then, of dizzying successes before Sebastian traces backward to Robertson’s humble beginnings as the son of a Mohawk mother and a Jewish father in Toronto, Canada.

Summers were spent at the Six Nations Indian Reservation, where Robbie’s mother was born and raised. It was there that the youngster took an interest in storytelling, something that would serve Robertson well on ageless narratives like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Acadian Driftwood” with the Band. The sounds of rock and R&B’s earliest stirrings reached him, via an American radio station out of Buffalo, N.Y., and Robertson turned his attention to making his own music. Work with an early group called Rhythm Chords brought him in contact with Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-based rockabilly cat whose backing group would eventually include every member of the Band — and Robbie’s path was set.

Illustrator Adam Gustavson brings these images to life with a series of strikingly vivid paintings that recall the pitched iconography of C.M. Russell, even as Sebastian Robertson uses lyrics and song titles from his father’s discography for titles to each successive chapter. Together, they create a story that is straight forward enough to connect with younger readers, but sufficiently complex to give everyone else a sense of Robertson’s stirring ambitions, his wide-eyed jubilation and — perhaps most important of all — his tireless work ethic.

Still, if hard work plays a starring role here, happenstance gets a few key scenes, too — as Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story makes clear. The first line of “The Weight,” for instance, was sparked by an off-handed glance into the sound hole of his Martin D28 guitar — where Robertson saw the word “Nazareth.”

Robertson ultimately crosses paths with Jerry Lee Lewis, with Buddy Holly and, most famously, with Bob Dylan — and each of them have their own unique impact on an artist still coming into his own. Then there was the Band. Unspoken in the passage describing their enduring mixture of blues, folk, rockabilly and mountain music was just how profoundly fortuitous it had been that Robertson met Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson — each of whom, in their own way, would help complete his musical portraits.

Rock and Roll Highway (due October 21, 2014 via Henry Holt and Co.) ensures that relationship continues, even if The Last Waltz would mark their last public appearance as a fivesome. See, the book doesn’t end at the ending, either, instead stopping short of describing Robertson’s post-Band career by concluding with a triumphal pre-Last Waltz appearance at Watkins Glen. Sebastian Robertson includes a timeline, however, that moves forward through his father’s most recent solo release, 2011’s How to Become Clairvoyant, as well as a touching, and quite personal, interview that puts Robertson’s feelings about his journey into perspective. Robbie’s recollection of Helm handing him a RC Cola for the first time, and then trying such quintessential Southern cuisine as a pulled-pork sandwich, provides a window into simpler times — for Robertson and for the Band.

And that, as much as anything, is the joy to be found here. Sebastian Robertson, who also collaborated with his dad on the children’s book Legends Icons and Rebels: Music That Changed The World, didn’t just tell the story of a young’s man’s dreams. Working in concert with Gustavson’s resonant oils, he’s recaptured the sense of wonder that surrounded them in the first place.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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