By G. Michael Dobbs
Photo courtesy of Neil Eckstein
SPRINGFIELD – Ask musician, teacher and writer Craig Harris about the significance of the acclaimed musical group The Band and he will seriously tell you that the answer to that question might take all day to explain.
Harris’ new book, “The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music,” was released earlier this year. The popular percussionist and educator is known in the region for his “Drumming Away the Blues” drum workshops, but he has been a music journalist for decades.
Although the original membership of The Band came apart in 1976, its influence in popular music remains important, according to Harris.
At the time of the group’s recording career in the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s, Harris noted, “They were not talking down to anybody. They brought an intelligence to rock and roll.”
He explained that rock and roll at the time could roughly be broken into acrid or psychedelic rock, hard rock which later become known as heavy metal and bubblegum or pop. The Band brought to the music scene its own brand of rock that incorporated musical traditions of the South and Midwest as well as the folk movement.
Harris explained though their sound was different they were not a niche or cult act and that was because of the group’s association with Bob Dylan.
“That connection put them right in the mainstream. Dylan gave them legitimacy,” Harris said.
Harris recounts the group’s history in the book and explained The Band had its origin’s in rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins, who initially recruited a teenaged Levon Helm to play drums in his band. Other members of the members of the group – Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko – formed Hawkins’ backup band the Hawks.
By 1964, though, the backup band had decided to leave Hawkins and strike out on their own. The next year Dylan was looking for a guitarist and hired Robertson. He told Dylan about his group and Dylan hired all of them to be his backup band on his world tour.
“The meeting of The Band and Bob Dylan were culturally explosive,” Harris said.
Harris said The Band was familiar with a variety of music, including folk, which was the genre for which Dylan was best known. They understood the political and social messages of folk music.
They became noticed as a musical force of their own and Capitol Records signed them. Their first album, “Music from Big Pink” was recorded in a makeshift studio in a house several of the band members shared.
When it came time for selecting a name, Harris explained the musicians had been referred to as “the band” on the publicity materials when touring with Dylan and thought “we might as well be ‘The Band.’”
Harris explained the group’s creative process was different from many bands of the era. “The Band wrote as an ensemble,” he said.
“Each of them contributed. Never has there been a group more deserving of the name ‘The Band,’” Harris said.
Although they played to make money, Harris maintains that was not the group’s motivation.
“The music wasn’t about pleasing the audience. It was about crafting artwork,” he said.
In 1976, Robertson collaborated with director Martin Scorsese on a performance film “The Last Waltz,” that was to record the final performance of the group. Harris said the intention was for the members to take a break, but the original group never performed again.
The story of The Band is “deep and ultimately one of tragedy,” Harris said. He noted that Manuel committed suicide, Danko had drug issues and died of a heart attack and Helm contracted cancer. Hudson and Robertson are still alive.
Harris interviewed both Robertson and Danko, with whom he also played.
Harris will be signing his book at his Drum Away the Blues workshops on June 30 at the South Hadley Public Library and on July 8 East Longmeadow, Public Library.
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