Acadian Driftwood: A Lost Landmark in Canadian Music History

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In celebration of Canada’s 151st birthday, I’d like to highlight one of the greatest moments in Canadian musical history – an episode that has never received the attention it deserves.

It took place almost 42 years ago, in San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, just before the intermission in The Last Waltz. It is the little known version of "Acadian Driftwood" performed with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Initiated by Robbie Robertson, the Last Waltz was The Band’s farewell concert, held at the Winterland on Thanksgiving, 1976. The plans for the concert snowballed, and before long Robertson was working with Haight-Ashbury impresario Bill Graham and director Martin Scorsese to produce a timeless extravaganza. The Last Waltz is generally regarded as the greatest rock movie ever – certainly it’s my favourite. And I’ll use the link provided by Graham to slip it into these blogs on Haight-Ashbury.

My biggest complaint about the movie is it ignored one performance that should have become a hallmark of Canadian rock.  The performance of “Acadian Driftwood” was one of several songs omitted from the film, to the film's determent.

Just before the intermission, Robbie Robertson told the crowd, “We’re going to do another Canadian song. We’re going to bring out some of the Canadians to help us to do it.”

On to the stage came Neil Young (who had already sung “Helpless”, which mentions Northern Ontario, and Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds", which refers to Alberta) and Joni Mitchell. They launched into “Acadian Driftwood”, a seven-minute saga that had appeared on The Band’s Northern Lights, Southern Cross album a year earlier. The song chronicles a family’s trials during the Expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, and is a Canadian counterpart to Robertson’s stirring tale of displacement in the southern U.S., “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. It’s a fine example of Robertson’s brilliance as a songwriter.

The performance of “Acadian Driftwood” at the Last Waltz was a bit ragged. Garth Hudson was brilliant on both accordion and organ, and Rick Danko and Levon Helm delivered the stalwart performances for which they were known. But the voice of Richard Manuel, who was almost invisible in the film, had developed a growly edge and his timing was off. Neil Young seemed a bit worse for wear by this point in the evening, but his and Mitchell’s harmonies brought an elegance to the song’s haunting chorus.

What was so spectacular about the performance was having these legends of Canadian rock collaborate on a song so rich in Canadian heritage. When journalist Bob Mercereau wrote his book The Top 100 Canadian Albums in 2007, Young, Mitchell and The Band captured the top four spots (not to mention Nos. 7, 16 and 18). And here they were appearing in one of the greatest rock events ever.

But the song wasn’t in the movie, nor on the three-disc album that appeared in 1978. It was first released in 2002, with the re-issue of the movie soundtrack. And a black-and-white video of the performance was released on YouTube.

Why was it omitted? Scorsese decided to use 35mm cameras, which produced better quality but were more cumbersome than 16mm. The cameramen had to frequently change the film, which meant several songs (including “Acadian Driftwood”) weren’t filmed. And what should have been one of the greatest moments in Canadian rock history became a footnote.

C’est tout, Acadia.

Peter Moreira