Garth Hudson and members of The Band were contemporaries of both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan and came of age during a magical era in American music. Tired of war and depleted of creative energy, America, after World War II became highly focused on regenerating and moving forward. It was a time of reinvention and rebirth. This new direction was expressed in a type of music that was blues infused, with strong hints of gospel and rooted in rural America. It was, at times, biting, raw and edgy. Garth Hudson, along with The Band, Elvis, Dylan and others, represented the first wave of Post World War musicians and songwriters who produced music deeply etched in the Americana musical memory, and music that will endure long after the magic fades.
Garth Hudson was born in Windsor, Ontario, in 1937. When he was three years old, the Hudson family moved to London, Ontario. His father was an entomologist, and an inspector for the Canadian government. Because he had a strong interest in science when he was young, Garth thought he would work, as his father had, as an agricultural researcher. However, his father was also a musician, and his mother played the accordion and the piano, and even his uncles were in a band. So, it was their family’s tradition that Garth would begin to study music while still quite young. After he had acquired a knowledge base of classical piano and music theory, Garth began to study the accordion as well as other instruments, and majored in music at Western Ontario University. His primary instruments were piano, organ, accordion, and tenor and soprano saxophones.
Any ambition as a classical musician never materialized because Garth always had trouble with memorization. He also didn’t like to practice, so he leaned heavily on improvisation, developing his own method of playing by ear. Garth saw music in shapes and forms, and was encouraged to do so by his high school music teacher, who had a band and asked him to transcribe scores for him. While in school, in 1952, Garth formed his first band, The Three Blisters. The next year, the group called themselves The Four Quarters, with Garth on the accordion. From that experience, another group evolved. He said, “We called ourselves the Silhouettes.We played some shows around town, and then I left with some of those people and went to the Windsor/Detroit area.We hooked up with a young singer, Paul London and the Capers.We worked with Armand Balladian, a promotion man who worked with music distributors and merchants and also promoted records to disc jockeys in the Detroit area. We had two records he promoted, and one was number eight on the local listing. We did teen hops and various other things.” With the Capers, Garth played the organ and saxophone. There were groups in Detroit that used the organ. “I remember going to the store and trying (a Lowry organ) out and it had certain things that the Hammond wouldn’t do. We bought a Lowry organ,which nobody else was using” From his use of the Lowry organ, Hudson began to develop a unique, gospel style sound, and a very different technique of playing the instrument.
In 1961 Garth Hudson joined an Arkansas rockabilly group, Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. Hawkins’ band had deserted him, choosing not to relocate with him to Ontario from the States. Levon Helm, also from Arkansas, decided to remain as the drummer for the group. Vacancies were filled by Canadians, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. When Garth Hudson joined the Hawks, he played the saxophone and Hawkins paid him an extra ten dollars per week to teach the other band members to read and write music. By 1963, The Hawks had split from Hawkins, and tried to change the band’s name to Levon and the Hawks, then The Canadian Squires. Eventually, they returned to the name, The Hawks.
In 1966,The Hawks were introduced to Bob Dylan who recruited them to accompany him on a tour of Europe. At the conclusion of the long tour, the band remained on a salary paid by Dylan, and bought and lived in a pink house near Woodstock, N.Y. At that time, Dylan chose to drop out of public life, and began writing and recording with The Hawks. Recording sessions were sold by bootleggers, and many of the recordings were released, later on as The Basement Tapes. The Hawks became known as The Band and continued to record with Bob Dylan throughout the tumultuous late 1960’s, as the Viet Nam War raged and Dylan went electric. The Band released their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968. It was their association with Woodstock, N.Y. and also the fact that Bob Dylan was set to headline that event, that the geographic location was chosen for the site of the festival that would rock the world.
By the 1970’s, the Viet Nam War came to an end and The Band felt a need to go their separate ways. The event was documented by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, filmed in 1976. It marked the end of an era. Garth Hudson spent the next 16 years living and working in California on film soundtracks and participating in the music scene. In 1978, a fire leveled his home that he shared with his wife, Maud, and the misfortune had a profound impact on them. Eventually, in 1991, the couple moved from California to the same area of New York State where he had resided during the Big Pink era. Garth recorded three more albums with The Band in the early 1990’s. Sadly, of the original five members of The Band, only two are living: Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson.
Today,Garth is heavily engrossed in experimental forms of music, and released an album entitled, The Sea to the North. Constantly working, Garth Hudson is a much in-demand and respected session musician, recording and performing with a diverse collection of artists, and amassing an enormous catalog of work. In much of that work, he has involved the accordion. Garth Hudson produces, composes, arranges, records and performs with his wife and his eleven piece orchestra and teaches master classes, when time permits. “I don’t care if I never play for a Jazz audience.” He says,”the people I am concerned about approaching are out there, in middle America.”
“You must, after the age of 33, continue to do a certain type of work or else go into the shoe business, forget music or it will turn into hatred, or else reiteration, redundancy and in many cases, death.You have to find a type of work that you make yourself do that is not drug inspired.” Garth Hudson
Garth Hudson quotes from The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 13, March 28, 1985.
by Ruth Albert Spencer