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The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971

Levon Helm: Ramble at the Ryman

The Band: Three of a Kind

Robbie Robertson: How to Become Clairvoyant

Garth Hudson Presents a Canadian Celebration of The Band

Levon Helm: Electric Dirt

Garth and Maud Hudson: Live at the Wolf

Pulse

Dirt Farmer

Elliot Landy's Woodstock Vision

Rockin' Chair

Written by Robbie Robertson - from The Band (1969)


[Peter Viney]  Notes compiled by Peter Viney


Musicians
Richard Manuel - lead vocal, Levon Helm - mandolin, vocal, Garth Hudson - accordion, Robbie Robertson - acoustic guitar, Rick Danko - bass, vocal

[Lyrics] [Sound sample]

I've tried to write about this song for years. In many ways it needs little explanation. The words are transparent enough. But it is a key Band song for me, and a favourite of mine since 1969. While it is a favourite of Band afficianados, it fails to make all but the longest compilation, and until the remasters series in 2000 had not appeared in an official live version.

This article is even more an assembling of others' views than my previous articles on The Band. The folks on the Band Guestbook said it all so well, that I see my role as cutting and pasting the comments into order, deleting the repetitions (sorry if I cut a comment because someone else said it) and linking the various points together. Thanks to everyone who contributed. I've quoted Susan and Al Edge at length and I've added Pehr Smith's section on paintings as an appendix.
[photo]

What they said about it

William Bender:
Rockin' Chair sketches in the weariness of old age better than pop music has any right to do. [1]
Robbie Robertson:
Most people are knocked out by younger people. I'm knocked out by older people. Just look at their eyes. Hear them talk. They're not joking. They've seen things you'll never see. [2]
Levon Helm:
It was a complicated record. We wanted to make one that you didn't really get until the second time you played it. Some of the songs, like Rockin' Chair, sound like folks playing accordion and mandolin on the back porch of some farm ... Old people talk in the songs, like Ragtime Willie, (and) the grandpa in When you Awake. There was nothing normal about it. The title we had for the record was Harvest, because we were reaping this music from seeds that had been planted many years before we'd even been born. [3]
Barney Hoskyns:
Richard Manuel played some other wonderful Southern characters on The Band. On the exquisite Rockin' Chair , he was a septuagenarian seadog finally come home to 'old Virginny' to spend his last days with his crony, Ragtime Willie. It was rare enough to hear a rock song about old people that wasn't just made sentimentally patronizing; this one was so tenderly sad it made you  want to cry ... Set to an old-time string band arrangment ... with some of the lovliest close harmony singing the band ever recorded - the song re-established the sense of generational continuity that had informed Music from Big Pink. [4]
Barney Hoskyns:
The old-timey string-band arrangement was perfect for Robertson's enchanting song about a pair of retired seafarers: Helm on mandolin, Hudson on accordion, Robertson himself on acoustic guitar. "In my time I've run up against some old people who were able to explain things to me and make me see things in a way nobody else could," Robertson said. "Their experience made me feel like not saying a word. At this time, in this country, there's a whole thing that old people are almost put away. I can't buy that." [5]

I've spent my whole life at sea ...

The first question is whether the sea in the song is the story itself, or a metaphor. I'd say it's both. It's intended to be heard on the surface as the story of an old seadog. But it's also intended to have further meaning. Take a line like:
I've spent my whole life at sea ...
At sea can mean the Seven Seas, or it can mean"without purpose", "without direction", "out of control." And a sailor on a rocking ship is already on one kind of rocking chair, seeking another.

Are they on the ship or the shore?

Susan discussed this in the Band Guestbook, and I'll quote in full.

Susan:

Serendipitously, the accompaniment for my walk today was the 2nd disk of the remastered Rock of Ages, with a particularly fine live version of Rockin' Chair. I listened to it twice, and got to thinking about what is really going on in the song. I've always vaguely thought that the narrator is talking to his friend Willie, who is on this ship with him, and that Levon is singing Willie's part. This does not really hold up in a close look at the lyrics.

It starts " Hang around, Willie, boy. Don't you raise the sails any more This suggests that everybody's on land, and the narrator does not want Willie to set sail. The narrator wants to go home to Virginny, and take Willie with him.

But the second verse sets a different scene. They are at sea, and Willie's working hard; The narrator wants to 'Turn the stern and point to shore" Now this is a fine idea, but how they are going to do it without raising sail I don't know. Those sails in the first verse must be metaphorical sails; perhaps Willie wants to keep on, and The narrator is trying to persuade him to head for home.

The third verse gets really confusing. In a wonderfully abstruse way it suggests that there's some danger, since The narrator sees or hears the Flying Dutchman on the reef, a bad omen. The narrator thinks they've used up all their time; are they going to die in a storm at sea? Yet "This hill's too steep to climb". Is this a metaphorical hill, or a big wave?

The next line is poignant; The narrator has been longing to be home to 'sooth away the rest of our years', yet now 'The days that remain ain't worth a dime" I take this to mean they won't have those days of peace and reverie; it's all ending here and now.

Then one more chorus, but the verb changes. Instead of we're gonna it's would'a. The big rockin' chair won't go nowhere, and neither will Willie and The narrator.

The cry "I believe old rockin' chair's got me" brings to mind the Hoagy Carmichael song. I'd not heard it in years, but remembered I had Maria Muldaur's version on vinyl. That's a song about ageing and dying as well, but in that song the narrator seems to be having that peaceful, homely end.

Ragtime (Band guestbook pseudonym):

The legend says that the Flying Dutchman is doomed to sail into eternity, right? So... if he is 'on he reef'  he must be stuck, can't sail forward or backwards. He's not at sea, he's not on the ground, he's just stuck... what a great metaphore for human life this is...
Susan:
Well, who'd have thought Rockin' Chair was so loaded with ambiguity? The more I look the more slippery the song seems, and that's just the lyrics. Ragtime Willie has given me another way to look at some key lines. He sees the Flying Dutchman on the reef as the doomed sailor coming home, if I read him right. Now I take 'on the reef' as a wreck. I'm not a sailor, and have never been within 500 miles of an ocean, but reading tells me that when ships hit reefs it's not a good thing. The suggestion that the speaker is not satisfied to be home again is attractive, and is one possible reading, but I'm not convinced that the speaker ever gets back to land, to home. There's another line that can have multiple meanings, and they all resonate. "This hill's too steep to climb" can be a metaphorical hill or a real one, and it carries a suggestion of the physical failings of age as well.

I'll add my two cents. Barney Hoskyns would seem to be wrong that the old seadog has come home or that they are yet retired. Susan mentions that it woulda (would have) been nice to be back hearing the stale old jokes. The repeated chorus is clear: Oh, to be home again... means that you're not home. No dispute. Straightforward use of grammar, there. The song's about hopes and yearning. It's not two guys sitting in rocking chairs on porches yet. It's two guys who've realised that it's time to slow down. They're not going to raise the sails anymore, they're going to head for dry land. He wants to get his feet back on dry land.
[photo]
The Flying Dutchman, from Newnes Pictorial Knowledge

The Flying Dutchman

The song contains a stunning, key verse, as good as anything Robbie ever wrote. As distilled as I pulled into Nazareth, feelin' bout half past dead ...:
Hear the sound, Willie Boy
The Flying Dutchman's on the reef
And it's my belief
We've used up all our time.
This hill's too steep to climb
And the days that remain
ain't worth a dime

"The Flying Dutchman" is the ghost ship which is destined to try to sail around the Cape of Good Hope until the end of time. The original myth tells of the Dutch Captain, Van der Decken. Unable to make progress against a headwind and current, he swore a dreadful oath that he would not give up until he had suceeded in rounding the Cape. Hubris. So, Providence condemned him to continue his efforts until the end of time, as it tends to do in these situations.  That's one thing.

If it's on the reef, it cannot move forward or back, so then time is over. That's it. Too tired. They're too late. Goodnight.

But sailors would see the old ship battling against the waves (sometimes way out of the Good Hope area) and it was regarded as a certain omen of dreadful disaster.  That's echoed later, I can hear something calling on me... not to me, but on me. An obligation calls on you. In other words, a predetermination. Fate. Destiny. Ultimately, death.

The story was the basis for an early Wagner opera (written 1841, produced 1843), but I know little about opera and want to know less. I'd hope that wasn't the main source! I knew the story as a kid. It was in all those Mysteries of the Sea readers we had at school in the 50s.

I begin to wonder if Robbie's childhood contained the 10 part early 50s encylopaedia Newnes Pictorial Knowledge, because material for Acadian Driftwood, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and details of the Flying Dutchman with inspiring picture all live in there. I had it too (picture above). "The Flying Dutchman" was the inexplicable logo on KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines planes in the 1950s, and is now the name of their business class and frequent flyer program. Who in their right mind would link an airline with an image of failure to arrive? But what a contrast to the contemporary Jefferson Airplane line circa After Bathing At Baxter's - "Fly Jefferson Airplane - Gets You There on Time." Deliberate? I'm sure not, but it certainly rings bells with Robbie's comments about West Coast rock at the time.

This whole article started out with a comment in the Band guestbook:

Mr Guerilla:

Finally I would like to know if anyone knows what the song Rocking Chair is about. I have always thought that it is the best song about addiction ever written. Is that just my screwed up take on it? [6]

It's a song about exhaustion. It's a song about imminent death, that's for sure. I find Richard's voice on I can hear something calling on me, and you know where I want to be... positively chilling, and that's not just wisdom after the event. It has always made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. On the Classic Albums video, John Simon introduces the line with I love this part here. Levon Helm quietly adds, Me too, and his voice is full of emotion.

 It's not the call of home but a forewarning that the singer has indeed used up all his time. I don't think Mr Guerilla's take is necessarily screwed up, and though it had never struck me before, it might well be an unconcious subtext in the song. I believe it's a song about old age, not addiction, but I can see how the image of a rocking chair can be taken as an image of nodding out. With hindsight, it also previews the whole Last Waltz theme of Robbie's about the road being an impossible place.

Pete Rivard:

There are several remarks buried in various articles regarding the Band's rejection of the "Don't trust anyone over 30" ethos of the 60's. I see Rockin' Chair as an artfully rendered imagining of what it must be like to have most of your life behind you, instead of ahead.

Ragtime Willie

Ragtime Willie - the name suggests his age. You earn that sort of name in your younger years, and the heyday of ragtime was 1890 to 1920. At least 50 years before the song came out, and they're now pushing age 73. According to most sources, ragtime means 'ragged time'.

John Fordham:

The expression means literally ragged time. A technically complex piano music adapting European light classics, it depended on a steady march-like, two- beat left hand, given rhythmic charge by the right hand which doubled the tempo and placed emphatic accents between the strong beats of the left hand rather than on top of them. This cross-rhythmic approach had black echoes in ceremonial and voodoo music, it could (also) be traced in Western classical music, but usually only deployed as a passing effect. [7]

The TV series The History of Popular Song disagreed. They said that the word ragtime dates back to the brothels of New Orleans, which employed pianists to entertain the waiting clientele. Women living in closed institutions such as prisons, nunneries, boarding schools eventually synchronize their cycles. The same happened in the houses of New Orleans, and those evenings when no girls were available was 'ragtime', and the pianist provided the main entertainment and would thus extemporise to fill in the time. I think this is highly imaginative, as the customers could just as easily have moved on down the road rather than spend several hours listening to broadly similar piano pieces. But the story is, and has been around. I wouldn't dismiss out-of-hand possible knowledge of the story, which is not to say the story is correct.

But the song does not make any crass references to 'ragtime' music. They even avoid using piano anywhere on it. It's just a name. Another great characterization, though we only hear him being addressed in the song. Interestingly, on the Classic Albums video, Robbie describes We Can Talk as having a "ragtime-ish feel" in the guitar line.

There is a slight enigma about Willie. Throughout the song, he's addressed directly  ... Hang around, Willie Boy... Slow down, Willie Boy... Hear the sound, Willie Boy... Oh, Willie, don't you hear that sound... but in the last verse. it all turns conditional ... I'd love to see my very best friend, they call him Ragtime Willie... which seems suddenly as if Willie isn't there, but is only being addressed in the narrator's mind. On the other hand, on the record rather than the lyric sheet it sounds more like I love... my very best friend.

Old Virginny

Robbie could have chosen a few places for the old seadog to yearn for. New England springs to mind first, with its old whaling towns. You could move up to Nova Scotia too. Then (as Pehr mentions below) there's the whole Hudson River school of painters. The story works best with a warm, laid-back, beautiful place to yearn for, which is why Virginia was chosen, no doubt. Rockin' chairs on porches are a southern cliché, and clichés are useful because you immediately add further details, hazy mountains in the distance, the rich perfume of exotic flowers, the smell of tobacco. It's good sense to use one word that evokes a chain of mental images which needn't be stated. It reflects the deliberate"southern-ness" of the album, as there is no particular pressing reason for a southern setting. It's not an arbitary choice, but it is a deliberate part of the setting of the whole album. Of course it rhymes conveniently with Willie too!

A Word Picture of the Song

I liked Al Edge's take on the song (which arrived on the Guestbook just as I thought I'd finished this). He draws a good distinction between the musicians we're listening to (who are on the porch) and the song they're singing (which is about the sea). I include this in full. He separates Willie (on the ship) from Ragtime Willie (the old friend) which would solve the mild conundrum above . The idea that the narrator is actually talking to himself (addressing himself as"Willie") is an original take, and fits well.

Al Edge:

These musicians are out on a front porch somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. Kentucky perhaps? West Virginia? You tell me. The sun is about an hour from setting over to the west just beyond the wooded glen that melts between the jagged peaks soaring either side. The tone and flavour of the singer's voice confirms it all. This fellow is related somewhere along the line to Virgil Kane, the guy who lost his brother at bloody Gettysberg. It's the mid 1800's. It's traditional American territory and you are being invited to join these folks for some singin', some home cookin' and some suppin'. Maybe followed by some checkers and a little bit of evening fishin' a while later. Perhaps even a hoe down. This is all far too homely to be true.

And so it is.

As the singer draws you into his simple little tale, you are suddenly on board a schooner. Before you've even had time to take a seat on that comfy little porch the swell of the ocean is painting an altogether different picture.

You're alongside this old sailor. He's originally from the Appalachian setting you imagined. However, this fellow hasn't been back there for years. He's spent virtually his whole life at sea and now, in his late Autumn years, he is literally pining to be back home. Back amongst the folks he left all those years ago in Old Virginny. Back on that front porch you yourself almost sat upon barely seconds earlier. You can actually touch this fellow's yearning. He wants it so dearly it hurts. So much so he'd possibly consider even turning the ship around himself. Before it's too late he is desperate to rock himself to sleep one more time on that big rockin chair he remembers with such fondness from when he was toddler. Fact is it's probably no bigger than any other rockin chair. Yet in his memory there is none bigger.

The fellow you're with is called Willie. Not Ragtime Willie, mind you. That's his best friend from way back when in those mountains of home. No, this fellow is just plain Willie. A real character is our Willie. He talks endlessly to himself as he goes about his tasks. Fact is his long hard years on the sailing ships have left him a bit senile. He keeps telling himself to hang around and slow down as he knows he shouldn't really be hoisting sails and pulling on ropes at his age. Who knows when he might just keel over? He's seen many of his sailing chums go in just that very way. The guy's seventy three for fuck's sake. On his last legs. He really should be sat back on that front porch with his feet up taking things easy. He's paid enough dues to sink a dozen ships. Fact is when the one he's on now finally does he certainly doesn't want to be on board.

You know, one of the saddest things in life is when you've a heartfelt longing for someone or somewhere that remains unfulfilled. A love that dies untold. Loved ones or a home you'll never see again. In this sad tale we watch as poor old Willie joins that ever-growing list. One of life's sad human casualties. In Willie's case The Flying Dutchman heads him off at the pass. The reef in fact. Willie never does get to sniff that air or see those folks.

One nice thing, though. As he passes away with all his crew-mates around him, there's a sort of glow about him. A serenity that hasn't paid a visit to that withered ruddy old face of his for many many years. You'd swear it's almost as if he's had his dying wish granted. Can rockin chairs do that for you? Who knows? What you do know is that maybe senility isn't such a bad thing after all and that 'Rockin Chair' is arguably The Band's most poignant and delicious few minutes.

[photo]
Rockin' Together (Atco, 1958)

Musical Chairs

There are (at least) two other famous musical American rockin' chairs. Hoagy Carmichael wrote a song of the same name - in a similar style to his Lazybones. Howlin' Wolf's most famous album had no title, but was always known as The Rockin Chair Album from the cover picture. In fact, the CD has that official title now.

There's also the link between 'rockin' (as in music), rockin' (on the sea) and rockin' (in a chair), as this 1958 Atco compilation makes clear (well, two out of three isn't bad).

In the case of Hoagy Carmichael's song, there is a definite nod in its direction in the last line. So over to Susan:

[photo]
Cover detail from Rusty Meets Hoagy"
Susan:

What is the relationship of the Band's Rockin' Chair to the Hoagy Carmichael song of the same title? It's clear that the one inspired the other; the last line cried in performance "I believe old rocking chair's got me," makes that plain. Both are narrated by aged persons contemplating the final trajectory of their lives. Yet they are very different songs; I'm not really sure how "I believe old rocking chair's got me" fits the rest of the Band song. - why this strong reference here?

I have the Hoagy Carmichael song in Maria Muldaur's version on her album Sweet Harmony. It's slow and sultry in both meanings. An elderly woman, or at least a woman who needs a cane, is sitting, probably on a front porch. There's a child around to fetch gin, possibly for that quintessential summer drink the gin and tonic. She seems to be longing for death, asking her 'dear old aunt Harriet" to send a 'sweet chariot', a reference to yet another song 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Yet the music and performance don't sound at all like a wish for death. It conjures lazy summer images, slow and sleepy, but not sad at all.

The Band's Rockin' Chair seems on the surface a similar song; an old sailor wants to spend his last years at home, doing nothing in particular. If you just listen to the music and bits of the words here and there you might thing that's what the song is. But a more detailed look at the lyrics shows a man and his friend who won't make it back home.

Now, can someone explain to me just what the last line of the Band song does to the rest of the song. Why invoke the Hoagy Carmichael song so directly? [8]

I think that the rockin' chair, symbolizing age, has"got" the singer. There's no escape. And maybe an escape is not what he seeks, but rather it's an acceptance of his fate. The whole concept of The Flying Dutchman is about fate. Fatalism is an acceptance that you can't stop fate. He believes at last that the rockin' chair has got him. But how Robbie wrote that at the age of 26 I have no idea!

As David Powell points out, there's a strong Richard Manuel-Hoagy Carmichael affinity. So much so that it wouldn't have been an accidental reference:

David Powell:

For me the definitive version of Hoagy Carmichael's Rockin' Chair is the one that trombonist Jack Teagarden sang along with Louis Armstrong. Another song, with a similar theme, that Mr. Carmichael wrote with Johnny Mercer, is Lazybones. My favorite version of that song is the one that Amos Garrett performed on Geoff & Maria Muldaur's fine Sweet Potatoes album.  When you mention Hoagy Carmichael, you can't help but talk about his great classic, Georgia On My Mind, a song he wrote with lyricist Stuart Gorrell. Although Ray Charles practically made this song his own, who can forget The Band's great version with Richard Manuel's haunting vocal performance.

Richard's last line is chilling. Being 'got' by the rockin' chair is the peaceful embrace of approaching death - the feeling described by people trapped in snow and ice of the warmth and serenity as they start to slip away. The chair has got the singer like the snow. He's definitely name-checking the earlier song, possibly extemporized rather than part of the original wordsheet. Who knows? Well, I guess Robbie does.

[photo]
Howlin' Wolf's Rockin' Chair album
Taking the other Rockin' Chair - the Howlin' Wolf one - leads me to Amanda's comment which makes a bluesy link.

Amanda:

Rockin' Chair is so metaphorical that it could mean so many things to different people. I like to think that Robbie got his inspiration from meeting Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters and any other aging musicians that he was fortunate enough to get to know. When The Band had the encounter with Sonny Boy in Helena...Sonny Boy was up there in age and still living hard with liquor, wild women and such...still into that juke joint jumpin' kind of lifestyle. Maybe Robbie sensed that Sonny Boy or himself or anyone else couldn't ride the waves on those seven seas forever...that eventually that lifestyle would send you crashing to shore. I think what is beautiful about the song and Robbie's perception of life is that no matter where you roam it always feels good to put your foot back on the ground...the ground that is familiar and that means home to you. Just like Sonny Boy always came back to Helena. No matter how silly the people or conversations seemed to you as a young man/woman...they are somehow the sweetest things to have in your twilight years. The love for childhood friends...we never get over that. I know that the Mississippi River and Arkansas are a long way from the sea and Virginny. Robbie is such an inspired writer...I can easily see how he could find a relationship between both worlds. [9]
  There's nothing at all in the Howlin' Wolf album about relaxed acceptance. But he was a major influence on The Hawks who used to perform Little Red Rooster and Howlin' For My Baby from this. They knew the Wolf (and Levon has worked with Hubert Sumlin, his guitarist recently). Levon solo works add at least 300 Pounds of Joy and Siting on Top of the World.

I glanced through some album cover compilations, hoping to find a good blues rocking chair picture to start the article (I had the Howlin' Wolf anyway). I didn't find any, but I did find Jesse Belvin (1960) and B.B. King (1967) lying in hammocks!

The Music

One of the great moments on the Classic Albums video is where Levon Helm and John Simon sit in the studio analysing Richard's vocal part. Levon is conducting the wave motions of his own exquisite mandolin part with his hands, and it's a poignant moment, the video's deepest tribute to Richard Manuel.  It starts with an indecipherable remark that contains guitar and tune or tuning. There's a brief cut to Richard mouthing the words in concert (I don't think it's the concert soundtrack, though it sounds a little muddier and 'worth a dime' sounds different to the record). We briefly see Robbie, Rick and Levon at front of stage. I wish they'd unearth the whole performance. It also indicates that Robbie was singing too, at least on stage, since he's sharing a mic with Rick Danko, and both are vocalising into it!

Levon Helm:

Richard sang lead, right. And here it switches... Richard's going up on top and I'm doing the tonic... and Rick's tying it together. Rick's in the middle tying it together, but Richard has the ability to... (demonstrates high part) ...Now Richard goes back and sings the song. The body of the song. [10]
As the mandolin and guitar play out, Levon laughs.

Levon Helm:

How did we come up with that Chinese ending? [11]

Robbie Robertson uses the Rockin' Chair segment to discuss their use of harmony.

Robbie Robertson:

So a lot of the time with The Band, there was somewhere  between real harmonies, and because of our lack of education in music, there would be things that just sounded interesting. or it was the only thing the person could hit. So that sometimes the limitation of the instrument would provide the originality as well. [12]
The Band - all of them - had an ability to make their instruments into extra characters in their songs. The rhythm section, strutting along like a turkey cock behind The Shape I'm In, the guitar and cymbals and drums in King Harvest, Garth's horn in Unfaithful Servant. Here it's Levon's mandolin that provides the waves and wind and sea - again, just watch him conducting himself in Classic Albums. Robbie's guitar splashes out chords to accent particular words in the lyric. Dave Hopkins below describes the bass perfectly.

Rod:

The thing(s) I like most about Rocking Chair is the accordion and mandolin. The whole arrangement is like some string band from another time. When You Awake , The Unfaithful Servant and Dixie have that same sort of feel and are probably the songs that (as someone once said) made The Band the best album of the 19th century.
Dave Hopkins:
Rockin' Chair is the only Band song that I can think of from the original lineup without a drummer on the track (not counting The Genetic Method and some of the demos on the reissues like  What Am I Living For), which gives it a bit of a Basement Tapes feel. I've always loved Danko's bass playing on the track, in part for this reason. Usually, Rick liked to play off the drums with a fair amount of syncopation (check out Up on Cripple Creek, Across the Great Divide, Stage Fright etc. etc. for great examples of this) and was of course just terrific at it; I can't think of a bass player anywhere with a better intuitive sense of rhythm.

But on Rockin' Chair there's no Levon or Richard behind the kit, and Rick adopts a different approach entirely since it's his responsibility to keep time for the rest of the group. So he sticks mostly to the downbeats, and it's perfect. I especially love the descending figure he plays during the verses (under "it's for sure, I spent my whole life at sea" and the corresponding points later in the song). There's nothing at all technically complex about his performance, and just about any bass player could play it. But not just any bass player would play it, and that's what separates the great musicians from the rest of the pack.

Hell, there's nothing shabby about the other guys' playing either. I wish the Band had done more of the stripped-down acoustic stuff on later albums; it clearly had a feel for that style.

Al Edge:
The guitar is acoustic. Crisp and clean. As rootsy and folksy as it ever gets. Drums? There are no drums. Not for this offering. The guitar is however joined by a gorgeous accordian and a barely perceptible bass.
Pehr Smith:
The song starts on a minor chord. The dropped 3rd of the first chord has a tinge of that mournful, sad, reflective sound. There is a complex interplay of the stringed instruments, a mandolin and guitar- earthy folk instruments seem to be in different places but coming together, while the accordia has an ethereal airborne quality. The voicings of the chords and runs being played work to sort themselves out before resolving, coming together on the I chord with a thud as the song begins. The bottom is heavy and wooden, and to me the bass sounds more like a tuba, similar to the bottom end on Rag Mama Rag.

The voicings of the instuments and the vocal harmonies seem to become more abstract as the song goes on, particularly Garth's work on the accordian, as the motifs weave an ever more complex tapestry of single threads. These windlike swirling sounds echo and reciprocate unpredictably, which reminds me of the wind blowing at night through the trees.

Thinking of the 'canon' style of solfege singing, and of the 'round' in the folk style of staggered repeated motifs being sung by different voices, as in Michael Row Your Boat Ashore. Reflections... upon reflections (apropos the water imagery) reflecting upon the act of reflection itself.

Recorded versions

Studio albums: Live albums
  • Rock of Ages - remastered version 2000, bonus track
    It may be me, but Rob Bowman's sleeve notes on what night was which song make no sense. But as they can't agree on most of the attribution to particular shows, who cares? As it didn't use the horn section, it was a pretty obvious one to reject from the original record.
Compilations:
  • Across The Great Divide box set, original version
    It's surprisingly little-compiled, especially considering how much Levon seems to love the song in the video.
Promotional CDs: Video/ DVD: Bootlegs: Collectors' tapes, e.g.

The Band (it was part of the basic 1970 / 71 set, e.g.):

  • Pasadena, 1969 New York, 1970
  • Tuft's University, 1970
  • Worcester Polytechnic, 1970
  • Pittsburg, 1970
  • Copenhagen, 1971
  • Rotterdam, 1971
Danko/ Manuel:
  • Lone Star Café, NYC, 1 February 1984

It always followed straight after Strawberry Wine, in the first quarter of the set, which may not have been its best position. It is noticeable by its absence in some sets from the period. It features on the 1971 European tour, but tapes from Boston and New York later in 1971 don't have the song. To my knowledge, it was never revived after their break from performing in 1972 except for the Rock of Ages series of shows. It had gone by Watkins Glen and the subsequent 1973 concerts. It was also absent from the 1974 tours and the 1976 shows.

I can't find it on Danko / Manuel 1980s set lists either except for February 1984, though they did start doing The Rumor which the Band had latterly avoided live. If there are many later performances I'd be surprised. It was a Richard lead, and as they began to feel less sure of Richard they had cut his number of leads. In the end, I think it was too quiet and soft for a stage show. Also, they couldn't ever better the perfect original. They didn't re-arrange it.


Rockin Chair and American Painting

An appendix by Pehr Smith


The song is very painterly in its instrumentation and its lyric content. Just the sound seems to bring this to mind with all the coming and going. The sound creates chains of vanishing images and illusions/allusions as it goes on. I'm thinking of water's elusive quality, how it avoids the grasping by the hands yet assumes the form of the vessel that contains it. Very Chinese at the moment but this water imagery painted through the sound is a lot like the transitory nature of deep thought and meditation, which this song most certainly alludes to.

As I listen to this tonight along with the "Painterly" concerns I am feeling alot of things coming to mind... I see a painting of an empty rocking chair sitting on a porch waiting for this seaman to come home...it seems to have his number in my mind, an inescapable inevitability to it, the calm patient assurance that the 'Captain' will wind up 'here'.

The rocking chair is itself a metaphor for the rocking of the boat, no longer on the waves but on the porch now. the letting go the difficulty of making the transition to old age and increasing dependence on others. I'm thinking of the elderly in my own neighborhood rockin' on the front porch. looking at the old deeply rooted trees leaves blowing in the wind, the swaying of the branches, clouds go across sky- the mysterious invisible winds that blowe them and the sun and moon's daily journey and the mysterious forces that propel them. an elder contemplate these comings and goings while waving to neighbors and passing travellers. Layers of reflection as one contemplates the essence and meanings of their own journey through life.
[photo]
Albert Pinkham Ryder: The Flying Dutchman

Another image comes to mind as I write this...the Nocturne, meditations of the sea at night.

Much of the Band's work hearkens to American Painting of this era. Post Colonial to Great Depression paintings explore this theme, much more than the French and European Painters did at this time... James Mcneil Whistler was painting seascapes in London at this time, but was of course an American... There was J.M.W. Turner as well doing marines but not so many nocturnal scenes, and his imagery was most often of military/naval subjects. Back to the Americans I'm thinking of Washington Allston, Asher B. Durand, Martin Heade, ("Watson and the Shark"- the image of the young man in the prime of his life with the long flowing mane of blonde hair, royally dressed, flailing about in the sea as a shark bites off his leg and his astonished companions watch helplessly.comes to mind) Another image in my head is the Winslow Homer painting of the shipwrecked black slave clinging to a raft being stalked by a menacing row of shark fins and whitecapsr.

Albert Pinkham Ryder comes to mind next. Small, cryptic, encrusted, cracked moonlit marinescapes with solitary sailboats on the waves- considered by many to be the first  modern, abstract paintings to be done in America. He was known as an eccentric who spent many nights walking up and down the Hudson River studying the effects of night color on water and his paintings were worked and re worked over 30 years with layers of varnish and materials of the nature of whatever was procurable, particularly black tar which caused these paintings to crack and makes them very sensitive to light and priceless today, very seldom on public display.

Ryder's most famous painting is in fact "The Flying Dutchman", his homage to the Wagner Opera of that name, alluded to in the "Rocking Chair" composition that is bringing all this imagery to mind.

Ryder's work was particularly inspiring to the next generations of painters that explored this motif, all of them from  the New York area, except Whistler (New Jersey). The suceeding painters pursued the maritime imagery with a particular interest in the visionary path and the unconscious. Also from the New York/Hudson River area were Louis Eilshimuis, Milton Avery, John Marin, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Elmer Bischoff and Jackson Pollock.

Pollock's take on this theme is rather intriguing. In his development as a painter, Pollock's gloomy solitary sailboats at night came after his studies of the west under Thomas Hart Benton as a student, and his studies of "psychoanalytic" abstractions done under the supervision of his analyst from whom he sought counselling for his alcoholism. In Pollock's case his therapy under the auspices of a Jungian opened Pollock up to the influences of the unconscious, foretold by the enigmatic sailboats on the void, which led him to explore the work of the surrealists, Miro, Picasso, and Native American Ideas and motifs.

I'm doing this kind of stream of consciousness myself at the moment... I'm particularly interested still in the commonality shared by these artists and Robertson, that being the image of the sailboat at sea, the forces of the unknown, and the Hudson River. I wonder indeed how aware Robertson was or is perhaps of all of these images. They can enter ones thinking consciously or unconsciously.

--Pehr


References

[1] William Bender, 'Down To Old Dixie and Back', Time, January 12 1970

[2] Quoted by William Bender, ''Down To Old Dixie and Back, Time, January 12 1970

[3] Levon Helm / Stephen Davis 'This Wheel's On Fire', 1993

[4]  Barney Hoskyns, 'Across the Great Divide', 1993

[5]  Barney Hoskyns, unreleased liner notes for the remasters, 2000

[6] Band Guestbook, 23 February 2002

[7] John Fordham 'Jazz' (Dorling Kindersley, 1993)

[8] Band Guestbook, 24 February 2002

[9] Band Guestbook, 24 February 2002

[10] Classic Albums: The Band, 1997

[11] Classic Albums: The Band, 1997

[12] Classic Albums: The Band, 1997


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