They began as the
Hawks, changed their names to the Candian Squires, the Crackers, the
Honkies, and then finally settled on just calling themselves "The
Band"; By the time they had finally found a name, these five
musicians - one from Arkansas and the rest from Canada - had already
been playing together for over eight years.
For the beginning,
what set the group apart was their collective anonymity. They didn't
have a front man--instead, they seemed to be a group of multitalented
equals who contributed in whatever way they could. Robbie Robertson
is credited with many of the songs, but Richard Manuel wrote some
important ones as well. Levon Helm had been in the group for longer
than any of the others and conveyed a sense
of authority because of this and the fact that he was the sole band
member from south of the Canadian border. The classically-trained
Garth Hudson was always seen to be the best musician in the group,
which was no small feat. At one point, he even gave the other members
music lessons, though this was in most part a cover story for his
parents - being a music teacher was much more respectable than being
a rock musician. Rick Danko was clearly the leader in having fun.
Even on the albums,
its hard to tell who is in charge. Lead vocals would get passed around
along with instruments, and songs would form while working together
as a collective, although this would become a point of dispute much
later on. The group seemed to find a unity at a time when America
was being torn apart by conflicts of the 60s.
A second thing that
set them apart - especially from the psychedelic groups that were
all the rage at the time - was their attraction to the images, stories,
archetypes and myths of America. As critic Greil Marcus said in his
groundbreaking book Mystery Train:
Many Americans [during the '60s] had
spent the best part of the decade teaching themselves to feel like
exiles in their own country: The Band, particularly the songwriters
Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, understood this and were sure
that it was a mistake. They had come here by choice, after all.
across the border, The Band saw an image of America that was fascinating,
and yet wasalmost completely ignored by its own people. For The Band,
it was time to bring the exiles home.