Robbie Robertson in 10 songs

As the driving force behind the Band, the Canadian-American group that helped change the sound of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s, Robbie Robertson certainly left his mark on music. He died Wednesday after a year-long battle with prostate cancer, but left behind a breadth of indelible songs that etched their way into the North American consciousness.

Robertson’s music reflected the journey of his life, from his ancestral roots in the Six Nations of the Grand River, on to the seedy Yonge Street strip of his teenage years, continuing down the Mississippi River, all the while picking up influences and sounds, including country, folk and the blues. When combined with the musicianship of the Band (Robertson, Rick Danka, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, the latter the only surviving member), the resulting sound became what we now know as Americana. 

“A lot of people over the years have said that we were Americana, that we invented Americana, and I have shot back saying, excuse me, it’s North Americana. I don’t care about the credit,” Robertson told CBC Music in a 2016 interview. 

As a songwriter, Robertson was among the best, pulling inspiration from the road, troubles with addiction and, in many cases, history books. He rarely sang himself, and only released solo music after the Band had disbanded, but when his bandmates sang the words he wrote, they never sounded better. 

Below, we look at 10 songs that showcase Robertson as one of the best songwriters of his generation. 

Which Robbie Robertson songs would you add to the list? Let us know via @cbc_music on Instagram or @CBCMusic on X.

‘The Night They Drove Ol Dixie Down’

If there’s a greater song about the Civil War written by a Canadian, we haven’t heard it.

Robertson had the tune for this song in his head, but wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. He decided he was going to write about the dying days of the Civil War, told from the point of view of a working-class Southerner. Robertson didn’t write the song with any political undertones, instead focusing deeply on the personal narrative. In many ways, it was an ode to his friend Levon Helm, originally from Arkansas, and was intended as a way to showcase Helm’s powerful voice. 

“Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era,” Helm wrote in his book, This Wheel’s on Fire. From the stream-of-consciousness lyrics worthy of Faulkner, which take you into the head of Virgil Caine, to that climactic rhythm section and the way it offsets, to the drums, to Helm’s inimitable voice, it’s one of the finest songs the Band ever wrote. It’s also worth noting that Helm never performed the song after the Last Waltz concert in 1976. 

‘The Weight’

There are few things guaranteed in life, but one of those guarantees is this: if any band, not even just the Band, closes out a concert with “The Weight,” everyone in the audience will be belting out “take a load off Annie” by the time the chorus hits. With Robertson’s textured lyrics and biblical allusions, as well as its mix of folk, country and gospel, it’s become a standard of the American songbook, one of Robertson’s finest compositions that has been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Black Keys. It’s the Band’s best-known song for a reason. 

‘It Makes no Difference’

The Band had three of the greatest voices in rock ‘n’ roll in its time, and “It Makes no Difference” may be one of the best displays from Danko. Danko’s tremulous voice perfectly captures the heartache and pain in Robertson’s lyrics, which are about a former love. “I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds,” Robertson told Rolling Stone . “Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases.” Also, the way Hudson comes out of nowhere at the end on sax? Doesn’t get any better. 


The best song from the Band’s 1975 album, Northern Lights – Southern Cross, was inspired by Hamlet’s ill-fated lover, Ophelia. Helm’s vocals on this are so perfect, so essential, that the song will always be associated with him. He continued to perform this song well after the Band’s breakup, right up to the end of his life. Even throat cancer couldn’t keep him from belting this one out. Gives you chills watching him strain his remaining voice to nail this. 

‘The Shape I’m In’

A tragic song in the tragic history of the Band. Robertson wrote “The Shape I’m In” based on what he saw as Manuel’s losing battle with depression, drugs and alcohol. Manual, the lead singer on this song, would eventually take his own life, giving the lines “Out of nine lives I spent seven. Now how in the world do you get to heaven?” an extra sense of poignancy.

‘Up on Cripple Creek’

A song about a trucker, with a tempo and groove perfect to listen to during long, overnight hauls. Robertson, in his continuing attempts to capture the everyday goings on of the everyman, wrote this country-funk romper about a driver who’s headed to see his girl, “Bessie,” in order to drink, gamble and God knows what else. Of note: it’s one of the earliest songs to use the clavinet, which was made a funk standard by Stevie Wonder a few years later. 

‘Acadian Driftwood’

One Robertson’s historical classics, this one about the expulsion of the Acadians during the North American conflict of the Seven Years’ War. It’s the northern version of Robertson’s Civil War ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and even if it has been criticized for taking some creative liberty with the facts, it’s earned its place in the Canadian songbook along the likes of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” One of Robertson’s most evocative compositions. 

‘Stage Fright’

One of the greatest songs ever written about the act of performing, full of anxiety, cynicism and a sort of Sisyphean angst. But after going through all that, including some major key changes and an impressive organ solo, “Stage Fright” ends back where it begins — but with a narrator who is ultimately triumphant. 

‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’

Robertson was always obsessed with tales of the working man, and nowhere is this captured so well as on “King Harvest,” which is told from the point of view of a poverty-stricken farmer who is desperately depending on his crop coming in. “There’s a lot of people who think, come autumn, come fall, that’s when life begins, it’s not the springtime, where we think it begins, it’s the fall, because the harvests come in,” Robertson said of the song to author Craig Harris for the book The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music.

‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’

Robertson’s primary role in the Band was as a songwriter, not a singer, so after the group broke up, he had something to prove on his self-titled solo album. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is the best of that output. In this beautiful, hypnotic and largely spoken-word piece produced by Daniel Lanois, Robertson conjures the image of the river and recounts his days living in Arkansas with Helm, back when “time stood still.” And on the chorus, he proved that he could not only still write a catchy hook, but that he could sing. Martin Scorsese also directed the music video, continuing the director and songwriter’s work together from The Last Waltz and kicking off a lifelong collaboration between the two. 

Listen to a special episode of the Essentials on CBC Music’s Mornings this Friday, Aug. 11, at 8:40 a.m. (9:10 in N.L.), as guest host Daniel Greaves shares five tracks that are essential to understanding the Band, via CBC Listen. 

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