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Robbie Robertson and Sixto Rodriguez OUTSIDERS

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Robbie Robertson and Sixto Rodriguez OUTSIDERS
Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons| JJ Hall via Flickr
By Joey Salgado

Robbie Robertson and Sixto Rodriguez were rock & roll outsiders.

Robertson’s exploration of American roots music in the late 60s earned him the reputation of a disruptor who helped rechannel rock music. His songs captured a vision of America woven by the rich cultural textures of the South. In doing so, he also articulated its failures, despair, and possibilities.

Rodriguez sought to shine a light on working class America, true to the tradition of folk music pioneers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but was rejected by mainstream America. He would find success decades later, his robust body of uncompromising songs embraced as youth anthems in a country gripped by turmoil thousands of miles away.

The Mirror

Robertson died last August 9, at the age of 80. Rodriguez died the day before, on August 8. He was 81.


Robertson, a Canadian with a Native American mother, discovered rock & roll on radio while living on a Reservation, and his path was set. Musically, he mined the deep well of rockabilly, blues, country and bluegrass, his guitar playing and musical adeptness polished by years of raucous and grueling live performances which began when he was 16.

His first three albums with The Band are polished gems of Americana, while his famed collaboration with Bob Dylan are the stuff of legend. For many, Robertson abetted the shift in rock music from the psychedelic excess of the late 60s to a more acoustic, laid-black, contemplative terrain.

The Band’s star-studded farewell concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1978, was a celebration not only of American music but of Robertson’s musical and creative genius. I saw the movie when I was a college freshman. The first time I saw the trailer, I asked myself, who the heck are these guys? And why do they have Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Dylan himself appearing on their concert? I came in a skeptic. I left the moviehouse a convert.

via Flickr

As a young man in Detroit, Rodriguez turned to folk music to expose inner city grime. This was folk music in its true sense: people’s music, music of the common folk, with the occasional fuzz of an electric guitar.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez’s father was a steel worker who would sing Spanish songs on his guitar with such passion that it brought the young Sixto to tears. Rodriguez became a troubadour-poet of the streets chronicling the other face of Detroit. The city that gave birth to the Motown sound, the bright, sleek, approachable, and safe pop of  Smokey Robinson and The Supremes was also the city of race riots, unemployment, poverty, and police brutality, inhabited by incendiary acts like MC5 and The Stooges.

Squalor and struggle were the main themes of Rodriguez’s gritty urban psychedelic folk-blues album “Cold Fact” released in 1970 (A second album, “Coming from Reality,” would be released a year after). By that time, socially-conscious singers like Rodriguez were a rarity. Dylan had turned his back on protest songs, and singer-songwriters of that period such as James Taylor and Cat Stevens were singing of personal struggles. There was no market for plainspoken, unapologetic songs that speak of inner city realities as told by someone surnamed Rodriguez.

Dropped by his label, Rodriguez faded to near obscurity. He took on jobs in construction and demolition to support his family. Yet he managed to earn a degree in philosophy and indulged in social causes, taking part in rallies and protests and even running for elective office.

While ignored in the United states, “Cold Fact” found a more appreciative audience in Australia and South Africa. In apartheid-era South Africa, he was an icon, bigger than The Beatles and Elvis.

His South African fans thought he was dead, until he was found in Detroit by intrepid journalists in Detroit. Rodriguez would perform in sold-out concerts in South Africa and Australia. After a documentary on the search for Rodriguez, titled  “Searching for Sugar Man,” won an Oscar, Rodriguez finally got the recognition that was denied him for decades. Before his death, Rodriguez appeared regularly in music festivals in the US and Europe. One of his last performances was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2012, where he sang “The Establishment Blues.”

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