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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

The Band

The Smithsonian of American Rock & Roll


by Ryan Clinton

This paper was originally written for a history class during the author's undergraduate studies at Duke University in North Carolina.
Copyright © Ryan Clinton 1997.
The text should not be reproduced without the permission of the author.
Ryan Clinton may be contacted pr. e-mail at rclinton@mail.com.


America's counterculture turned to drugs, sex, and rock & roll to express their discontent with society in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the rebellion grew, musicians turned to angry guitars and crashing drums to illustrate their frustration. Artists such as the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and The Who turned up their amplifiers in order to reach out to the growing discontent of America's youth. Five men who helped revolutionize folk music into electric anger formed a band that would find its identity not in rebellion against American society but instead in a proud embrace of the nation's roots. Not just a band, The Band, it would come to be known. It would soon permanently change the landscape of American rock & roll music, leaving behind a collection of songs which chronicle our country's history in lyrics and in music. In their mission to define the American character, The Band celebrates historic American folklore, promulgating core myths which have developed our nation's collective identity.

The character of America can be partially defined by the nation's myths. The use of the term myth, here, is not meant to imply truth or untruth. Whether the myths have positive or negative consequences for America is also not being argued. Rather, myths are core values, beliefs, and principles which embody our character, allowing us to organize reality, obscure reality, or make reality more bearable. There are five core myths which define the American character: the success myth, the frontier myth, the agrarian myth, the "foreign devil" myth, and the myth of America as a "City on a Hill" (Wilson). The Band's music, lyrics and identity provide illustrations of the American character through the embodiment of these core myths.

The American success myth is the prevailing and predominant myth in American society. It is based on the American value for and faith in opportunity and mobility. The myth is promulgated by examples of "self-made men" who have gone from "rags to riches" (Wilson). Finally, the myth inspires a sense of hope that the future will be better than the present.

The myth of the frontier results from the enormous space in our nation, creating the American ideal of unlimited opportunity. The myth is rooted in the possibility of new beginnings and rebirth of identity. Through the frontier myth, then, Americans have always believed that if they fail, they can move West and start anew (Wilson). The Band's lyrics provide images which evoke the frontier myth. Also, its photographs provide insight on The Band's identity, heavily influenced by the search for open space and rural existence.

The agrarian myth is similar to the frontier myth in the value each place on simplicity. Americans place high value on agrarian virtues, which grow out of connection with the soil. There is a quest for innocence in the agrarian myth, idealized by the simple yeoman farmer whose purity of labor results from its connection to the land (Wilson). The Band's lyrics and music evoke images of a simple time and place in the past. Through the agrarian myth, its lyrics are able to evoke values of agrarian simplicity, innocence, and purity.

The Band's music also evokes the "Foreign Devil" and "City on a Hill" myths. The "Foreign Devil" myth suggests that Americans define themselves by who we are not (Wilson). The Band successfully illustrates this in their reflections of the Southern character. The "City on a Hill" myth is based on the ideal of superiority in American character (Wilson). This is promulgated in The Band's lyrics which illustrate the indignation of the American South.

The background and history of The Band profoundly influenced the music that its members would produce. Ironically for a band whose songs grew out of American folklore, only one of its five members was born in the United States.

The Band's lead song-writer, Robbie Robertson, was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Robertson lived with his mother, a Mohawk Indian, until he left to follow his musical ambitions (Flippo 17). He was a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday when he joined the group of musicians who would later become The Band (Bowman). Robertson's Canadian roots shine through in much of his song-writing. Even more fascinating, though, is Robertson's grasp of the emotions and ideals embodied in American folklore which he uses in creating his songs. It is quite perplexing how someone not from America could understand so well the core dreams and myths of the American ethos. Perhaps it takes the vision of an outsider- looking in- to skillfully illustrate the character of Americana.

It is also possible that Robertson would never have produced these lyrical gems without the influence of The Band's drummer, Levon Helm. Helm grew up in the heart of rhythm and blues music, on a cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. He was strongly influenced by blues shows he listened to on the radio as a young man, and early in his career was able to sit in with rockabilly star Conway Twitty (Flippo 20). Helm received his first break when asked to join the successful Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in the late 1950s. Taking advantage of a somewhat untapped market, Ronnie Hawkins took his band up to Canada to tour local clubs. It was on this tour of Canada that Robertson, bass player Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and instrumental genius Garth Hudson joined Hawkins' backup band. It was also on this tour that the band would declare their independence from Ronnie Hawkins, in 1964, and would begin their own touring billed as Levon and the Hawks or the Levon Helm Sextet (Flippo 24).

In the summer of 1965, the Hawks would receive an unmeasurable stroke of luck- they were asked to accompany Bob Dylan on his first electric tour. Originally, Dylan had asked only Robertson and Helm to tour with him in his "guerilla-warfare attack on middle America's... consciousness" (Bowman), but they refused to play without the other members of the Hawks. "Band solidarity eventually ruled and, in one of those fortuitous accidents of musical history, the modern age of electric rock and roll began" (Flippo 24). The road to the "modem age of electric rock" was not without its potholes, however. Dylan and the band were booed unmercifully on the tour; its audiences could not handle the volume and feedback of Dylan's new folk music. The endless booing and harassment took its toll on the musicians, eventually leading to Helm quitting the group. The tour was brought to an abrupt halt in 1966, though, when Dylan wrecked his motorcycle and broke his neck. Suddenly, the band was without a gig.

Dylan would call again, however. This time Dylan enlisted the help of several band members to work on a documentary he was editing in upstate New York. Danko found a "big pink house" (Bowman) on a lake near Dylan's retreat, and the band members moved in. They were also able to entice Helm back into the group. Each day they would congregate for a few hours in the house they would refer to as "Big Pink" to write songs, toss around ideas, and occasionally record. After living in the house in Woodstock, NY for two years, The Band released their debut album, Music From Big Pink in late summer 1968.

One song on The Band's debut is particularly striking. "The Weight" is the centerpiece of the album, and marks the beginning of Robertson's tenure as chief illustrator of American folklore. The song has been analyzed probably more than any other song by The Band. However, its intensely visual imagery and haunting religious connotations remain mysterious. Many interpretations have been suggested for the lyrics of the song. The diversity of interpretations suggests a certain universality of "The Weight." Regardless of interpretation, "The Weight" clearly evokes images in the mind of the listener. Robertson's writing allows the listener to form his or her own picture of the characters in the fable. In doing so, the listener creates his or her own picture of America.

The simplicity and mystery of Roberton's writing is captured in the first verse of the song. The song begins with a worn down man rolling into town, just looking for a place to sleep. A stranger, grinning, offers no help. The first verse:

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead;
I just need some place where I can lay my head.
"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand, and "No!", was all he said.
Each verse is followed by the chorus:
(Chorus:)
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And you can put the load right on me.
At this point, the listener is likely unclear as to what "load" Robertson is referring to. It is clear, though, that the narrator is willing to endure some "load" for a second character, Fanny. The song continues with the narrator's actions after being turned away by the stranger:
I picked up my bag, I went lookin' for a place to hide;
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side.
I said, "Hey, Carmen, come on, let's go downtown."
She said, "I gotta go, but m' friend can stick around."
The narrator picks up his bags. As in the first line of the song, Robertson is hinting that the narrator has been traveling. The song continues with the narrator looking for some place to hide, as if he has something to fear or run from. The next line adds two more characters to the song, Carmen and the Devil. The narrator asks for Carmen's accompaniment (Carmen is likely a woman), but Carmen refuses, instead leaving her "friend," the Devil to stay with the narrator. This is certainly a misfortunate chain of events for the narrator.

The next two verses add even more characters into the story. They also continue to suggest religious allusions:

Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say.
It's just ol' Luke, and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day.
"Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?"
He said, "Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an' keep Anna Lee company?"

Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog.
He said, "I will fix your rack, if you'll take Jack, my dog."
I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man."
He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can."

The last verse of the song never quite ties things together:
Catch a cannon ball now, t' take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time.
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one.
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.
Again, Robertson alludes to a narrator on the move. The "cannon ball" is likely a streamlined train (Viney). The narrator ends the story by his belief that he needs to return to "Miss Fanny."

To different listeners of "The Weight," the lyrics are able to evoke very different images and stories. The universality of the language allows the audience to create its own backdrop for the events which take place in the song. Robertson, though, keenly uses images of American folklore to provoke the listener to fill in the details of the song. There are a couple of examples which provide evidence of this point. First, Robertson makes several allusions to the narrator as a traveler. Movement is one of the core aspects of the American character, rooted in the frontier and success myths. The idea is that Americans always have the ability go "somewhere else" where they can start all over. Music critic Chet Flippo describes this aspect of American character well when analyzing The Band:

One peculiarly American mythos has always been about movement: flight from England to escape tyranny and then the migrations westward until the land was settled... The Band fit perfectly into that mythos, with its embrace of and interpretation of American history and its attendant folk tales and mythic figures. And, they learned very early on as young rock and rollers that the road would be a basic fact of life. As a musician, that's what you did. You went on the road. (Flippo 14).
There is also a sense of purity in "The Weight." This theme begins in the first line, with the selection of the town named "Nazareth." The town, likely chosen for its Biblical name, seems to be a simple place where you could just walk up to a stranger and ask for a place to sleep. Robertson's lyrics, here, create the agrarian ideal that there exists (or at one time existed) such a pure, simple town in America. In a book by Mary Pat Kelly, however, Robertson provides an interpretation of the song that is quite contrary to the purity and simplicity of this mythical town. For him, the song is about an underside of American purity- guilt. Robertson said:
The story told in the song is about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what's being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience, you're trying to do what's right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it's just not possible. In the song, all this is 'the load.' (Viney)
The realism of Robertson's remarks are in stark contrast to the myths which his lyrics are able to convey. The quote illustrates Robertson's awareness of our falsehoods. The dreams created by our American socialization slowly crumble apart as we stumble through life, never finding the success that our mythology promises. We never quite find the answers to the questions that haunt us.

Peter Viney, a music critic, provides his own interpretation of "The Weight." Viney says on The Band's web site:

"The Weight" has been painting pictures for me for nearly twenty-five years now; it's an intensely visual song, and my pictures aren't of anywhere in Pennsylvania. My Nazareth is a dusty western town sometime in the late 19th century. Neighboring towns might be called Jerusalem or Babylon... or Jericho. Carmen and the devil are strutting their stuff in red silk dresses, fringed with black cat fur, along a wooden sidewalk. Chester is the town character straight out of the TV series "Gunsmoke" which was set in Dodge City in the 1880's. Carmen might be the programme's Miss Kitty, who owned the Longbranch Saloon - a tart with a heart. Old Luke's another town character... whose rockin' chair ain't goin' nowhere, as he puffs his pipe waiting on the judgement day. The Cannonball steams into the station, a great cow- catcher across the front. Pure Americana...
Viney clearly subscribes the core myths of the American character. He believes in the simplicity of the "dusty western down." Robertson's lyrics, then, have created images which have acted as catalysts for listeners to draw on their own ideas of the American character to fill in the details of the backdrop.

The lyrics of "The Weight" are not the only part of the song which conjure up images of America. The music is equally as evocative. Members of The Band were very careful in their selection of instruments. For example, instead of a Yamaha grand which may have been standard in most recording studios, The Band chose to use an old classic upright piano. In "The Weight," the upright piano chimes in to introduce and embellish each chorus. The old upright sounds like it belongs in an old Western saloon, not a 1970s electronic recording studio. The selection of the upright piano is an example of The Band's attempt to stray from the music norms of their day. It also highlights The Band's yearning for a simpler time in the past. Further, the sound of the old upright reinforces the imagery conjured up by the lyrics of the song. Robertson intentionally made the piano sound this way, he said. "I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind, I wanted this flavour" (Viney).

The Band's second album, simply called The Band, was released in 1969. While Music From Big Pink was a superior debut album, critics consider their second album a masterpiece. Robertson, who had only written four songs on the first album, became the dominant song-writer for the group. As a group of musicians, The Band became on their second album as good as they would ever become. Their musicianship "had reached a whole other level of ensemble playing. The sum was much greater than the parts, and the parts were as good as any that existed" (Bowman). As on their first album, the musicians put a lot of time and thought into the music before they went to record it. Again, they believed that each song could be set in an appropriate mood and sound.

The album is a collection of songs which accurately define the American character, each song adding its own piece of American mythology. In Sing Out! magazine's review of the album, the overall American feel of the album is described:

From the first song, "Across the Great Divide," there is the impression of starting off on a trek to find the legendary America that exists mainly in the realm of tall tales and songs of Americana- that rugged, individualistic place where men are honest but strong, women hardy, and a great nation to be conquered through hard work and the help of God. It is that impressionistic America that every American longs for and believes in, and is probably the source of the disillusionment and disappointment of the young people who have cut through the mythology and instead of Dan'l Boon, Honest Abe, and the Wagon Trains Going West, have discovered only used car lots, pollution, racism and war. But the hope for the myth to come true is still there, more in the new "youth culture" than anywhere else in America, and it is this determination to turn the myth into reality that has brought us back to Indian beads, buckskins, land communes, and a growing revolution of values and the meaning of what America is all about. The Band, probably unconsciously, represents this, among other things, to many people, and it is this representation that is so appealing in their music. (45)
The Band landed their first hit single in "Up on Cripple Creek." The song peaked at #25 late in 1969, and is one of several songs on the album that has an "old timey" feel. This sound is brought about by the song's instrumentation. In particular, Hudson is able to create the sound of a jew's harp, achieved by a wah- wah pedal on his clavinet. There is also a heavy emphasis on the bass and drums in the song (Bowman).

Another song with an "old timey" feel on The Band is "Rag Mama Rag," sung by Helm. This song is up-tempo with a ragtime feel, as is hinted by its name. The song's instrumentation contributes greatly to its mood. Danko plays the fiddle in the song, Hudson plays piano, Helm plays mandolin, Manuel plays drums and an additional member at the time, John Simon, played a bass part on the tuba. As in "Up on Cripple Creek," the song evokes images of a time which has passed. Again, Robertson's writing conjures up imagery of an older America whose details are penciled in by the listener.

In "King Harvest," Robertson's lyrics provide concrete images which promulgate and evoke American myths. This time, the agrarian myth takes center stage. Robertson puts this myth into music in "King Harvest:"

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come.

I work for the union 'cause she's so good to me;
And I'm bound to come out on top,
That's where I should be.
I will hear ev'ry word the boss may say,
For he's the one who hands me down my pay.
Looks like this time I'm gonna get to stay,
I'm a union man, now, all the way.

The smell of the leaves,
From the magnolia trees in the meadow,
King Harvest has surely come.

Dry summer, then comes fall,
Which I depend on most of all.
Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear my call?
Please let these crops grow tall.
Long enough I've been up on Skid Row
And it's plain to see, I've nothin' to show.
I'm glad to pay those union dues,
Just don't judge me by my shoes.

Scarecrow and a yellow moon,
And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town,
King Harvest has surely come.

Last year, this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke.
My horse jethro, well he went mad
And I can't remember things bein'so bad.
Then there comes a man with a paper and a pen
Tellin' us our hard times are about to end.
And then, if they don't give us what we like
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike."

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come.

In "King Harvest," Robertson clearly uses the mythology of agrarian America to instill a sense of purity and innocence. Images of an agrarian time, such as corn fields, leaves, and harvesting, are used to direct agrarian values onto the narrator of the song, a union member. Additionally, the song seems to set up a contrast between the past and the present, between an agrarian lifestyle and the hard work of a union man. The values, though, seem to stay the same. The innocence of the farmer is placed upon the union laborer. The Protestant work ethic, too, seems just as prevalent in the union man as it is in the farm worker. In his book Mystery Train Greil Marcus describes the individual in the song and the mythology he embodies: "... wherever is his driven, he carries his roots with him like a conscience. He cannot escape the feel of the land any more than we can escape its myth" (56). The song casts a contrast between two times and places, but illustrates that the values can stay the same. The quiet persistence and purity of the American farmer is suggested in the relative volume of the chorus in "King Harvest." Exactly the opposite of nearly every other song ever written" (Bowman), the chorus is quieter than the verse.

Finally, there appears to be an element of the American success myth in Robertson's "King Harvest." In "King Harvest," the message seems to communicate that if the union man hangs around long enough and sticks to his work, his own harvest will one day come. Pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town," Manuel sings, "King Harvest has surely come." The carnival seems to be just outside of the worker's grasp for now. If he works hard enough, though, the harvest will surely come his way.

"King Harvest" reminds listeners of the great expanse of land that formerly separated the east and west coast settlements. Ralph Gleason, critic for Rolling Stone commented about the song:

With their flashing images of the American continental landscape, Canadians though they are, they speak for the continent in "King Harvest Has Surely Come." They could have called the album America Robbie says, and after you play it a few times you know what he means. We live in these cities and we forget that there is more than 3000 miles between New York and the smog of Los Angeles, and those 3000 miles are deeply rooted to another world in another time and with another set of values. "King Harvest" takes us there. (44)
In what is arguably Robertson's finest piece of writing, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" captures the character of the old South perhaps better than any other song ever written. In doing so, the lyrics of the song embody several of the core myths inherent in the American identity. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" successfully illustrates the "City on a Hill" myth, the "Foreign Devil" myth, and the agrarian myth.

The song begins with an introduction in the words of the main character. In the first line, Robertson is already using the American mythology. First, the name of the character, Virgil Caine, evokes ideals of purity, both in the Biblical allusion of Caine, and in the similarity of the first name, Virgil, to the word "virgin". The second half of the song's first line is almost a standard in Robertson's songs, a mention of the railroad. Here, Robertson evokes images of a workingman, but also brings out frontier ideals of movement and freedom.

These ideals of freedom and working-class values, however, are taken away by Stoneman's cavalry in the second line, which provides the Civil War time frame for the song. Line two and three also serve to demonize the North as a "Foreign Devil," by portraying the actions of the North as evil. America has historically formed its identity by repudiation (Wilson). This is clearly true of the American South before and during the Civil War, when Southerners defined themselves as the opposite of those "Damn Yankees." Robertson illustrates this idea well when describing the actions of Stoneman's cavalry as tearing up the tracks, and when he describes that the Southerners were "barely alive," inferring blame on the North. Line four, finally, informs the listener that the narrator is singing after Richmond fell to the North. The first verse:

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
Til Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it's a time I remember, of so well,
After the first verse, the chorus is sung. The lyrics of the chorus, as in the first verse, serve to demonize the North. Instead of humanizing the North, Robertson chooses to describe them only as the anonymous "They." When Robertson describes the fall of the South, he further demonizes the North by blaming them for destroying the South. Finally, the narrator speaks of the South in the glorious terms "Old Dixie." In glorifying the South, the narrator evokes what can be described as the opposite of the "Foreign Devil" myth, the "City on a Hill" myth. Robertson's character believes in the superiority of the South, as is illustrated in his glorification of the region. The pain and frustration in Helm's voice also suggests a sense of righteous indignation in the character's love for "Old Dixie." The chorus is simple:
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, all the people were singin'. They went
La, La, La ...
Robertson's character provides further detail of his background in the first line of the second verse. The second verse, then, goes on to describe the lifestyle of the narrator. Here again, Robertson's lyrics evoke and promulgate the agrarian myth. By doing so, the lyrics are able to infer agrarian values on the character in the song:
Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me,
"Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!"
Now I don't mind choppin'wood, and I don't care if the money's no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they never should have taken the very best.
The narrator's reference to his wife in the verse's first line evokes the agrarian virtue of the family. The verse continues by describing the action's of the narrator. The use of the phrase "choppin' wood" even further evokes agrarian values; the lyrics suggest a sense of purity in the man who works with his hands, and his simple lifestyle. At the end of the verse, Robertson again demonizes the North by saying that they took the "very best" from the South.

The chorus follows the second verse. This is followed by the final verse of the song, which further illustrates the character of the South as embodied in the core American myths:

Like my father before me, I will work the land, Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat.
It is amazing how well this last verse uses American mythology. In the first line, Robertson strikes up images of a family which earns its living by working the land. This line clearly embodies the agrarian myth of purity derived from working with the soil. The next line again brings up family, but this time in the context of the Civil War, as the narrator's brother "took a rebel stand." The third line of the verse shows the innocence and youth of the rebel soldier in describing him as "just eighteen, proud and brave." Robertson then evokes the "Foreign Devil" myth again by describing what happened to the narrator's brother, "a Yankee laid him in his grave." In the second to last line. the narrator swears "by the mud" below his feet. Again, this embodies the agrarian myth of purity rooted in the land.

The song ends, finally, with yet another Biblical allusion. The depth of meaning in this one line alone is simply masterful. Robertson uses the name Caine as an allusion to the two brothers who fought in the Bible. In the song, this story is paralleled by the two halves of the country which fought in the war- the North and the South. The name Caine is also used, though, as a reference to the narrator's brother, who was killed by the Yankee army.

The sound of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is equally as descriptive and intensely visual as the lyrics. First, the instruments selected are very simple- acoustic guitars, drums, and a bass, along with a harmonica-like sound created by Hudson. The drums sound like they belong in a military marching band instead of a 70s rock group. Complimenting the instruments is the voice of Levon Helm, which captures the spirit of American folklore like no other. Helm's voice is strong and sturdy yet decays with pain and emotion. It is absolutely convincing in its portrayal of a Southerner after the Civil War

. Concentrating on the music of the song, the audience can feel the emotional struggle of Virgil Caine and his Old Dixie. The drums beat in a slow march during the verses, stumbling periodically like a worn and tired soldier. In the chorus, the drums attempt to gather strength by beating quickly as in a military march, then stumble yet again. This stumbling drum beat gives the impression that the song may fall apart at any moment, seeming to parallel the plight of the Confederacy. The painful emotion of Helm's singing further contributes to the song's imagery. In "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band has successfully captured the myths of the Old South not only in lyrics, but in sound. Like Robertson's lyrics in "The Weight," the sound provides listeners with catalysts, which allow the listeners to fill in the details of the imagery based on their own ideas of the American character.

Though "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" chronicles the Civil War from a Southerner's perspective, the song is universal in its appeal. The war which placed the two halves of our nation in opposition also serves to link us together; it is a shared experience. Critic Greil Marcus wrote:

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," for one- written for Levon, who sings it- is not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carries a version of that even within himself. In this case it is a man named Virgil Kane, who makes no claim to speak for anyone else; but something in his tone demands that everyone listen... It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can't get out from under the singer's truth- not the whole truth, simply his truth- and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one. (55-56)
To some, it may seem that there is a contradiction in these myths being so prevalent in the Southern character- that these myths may somehow be anti- American in nature. The myth of the Old South (the collection of the myths in the Southern character) , however, is not at all anti-American. Instead, it is simply a regional interpretation of the myths inherent in the American character. Southerners subscribed to the American myths just as much as anyone else. However, when the country became ripped apart by the war, the South was able to adapt the myths to their own situation. By glorifying the South and demonizing the North, the American myths, as shaped by Southerners, served to legitimize the stance which the South took in the Civil War.

The Band's next two albums were Stage Fright and Cahoots. In Roberton's point of view, Stage Fright "was originally supposed to be a lighter, less serious, more rock n' roll type of album" (Bowman). However, several songs on the album turned out to be more dark than The Band had originally envisioned. One of the songs on the album that lived up to Robertson's original intentions is "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show." In the song, Robertson is able to create more images of American folklore, again working off of the myths inherent in the American character. The words to the song:

When your arms are empty, got no where to go
Come on out and catch the show
There'll be saints and sinners you'll see losers and winners
All kinds of people you might want to know
Once you get it, you can't forget it,
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.

You know he always holds it in a tent.
And if you're looking for the real thing,
He can show you where it went.

There's a young faith healer, he's a woman stealer
He will cure by his command
When the music's hot, you might have to stand
To hear the Klondike Klu Klux steamboat band
Don't you sweat it, you can't forget it
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.

I'd rather die happy than not die at all
And a man is a fool who will not heed the call

Gonna see Miss Brer Foxhole, she's got diamonds in her teeth
She is real gold down underneath
She's a rock and roll singer, and a true dead ringer
For something like you ain't never seen.
Once you get it, you can't forget it,
W.S. Walcott medicine Show.

"W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" is a relatively short song, but it's length does not decrease its complexity. In the first verse, the song reaches out to the discontented: "When your arms are empty, go no where to go, come on out and catch the show." The line brings to mind a common theme to Americans- the ideal that when your down and out, there's always a place for you in America. This theme is probably rooted in the "City on a Hill" myth, with its emphasis on America's desire to reach out and share itself with those less fortunate.

The lyrics of the song, like so much of Robertson's writing, create images of a time which has passed. The entire theme of the traveling show evokes images of an older America. A couple of lines jump out as examples of the American character. "There'll be saints and sinners, you'll see losers and winners" seems to describe the show as a "melting pot," another ideal in our history. Robertson, though, always seems keenly aware of the underside of American mythology. The line describing the steamboat as "Klondike Klu Klux" is quite possibly a reference to the strength of America's hate groups. America always seems to show it's happy face, though, and in such a spirit, the music of the song is upbeat.

The Band toured for the twelve months after the release of Stage Fright and then released Cahoots in October of 1971. The recording of the album was difficult at times for the members of The Band. Robertson said, "It was a frustrating, horrible feeling. I just wasn't inspired to write... I feel, on a lot of things, this was a half-finished idea" (Bowman). A lot of song-writers can only wish to produce what was for Robertson "half-finished." In "The River Hymn," Robertson once again creates intense imagery of an America which no longer exists, a mythical time of simplicity:

The ladies would put the baskets on the table
And the men would sit beneath a shady tree
The children would listen to a fable
While something else came through to me
The river got no end, just rolls around the bend
Then pretty soon the women would all join in
On the river hymn...

The whole congregation was standing on the banks of the river
We are gathered here to give a little thanks.

The voice of the rapids will echo
And ricochet like an old water well
Who would ever want to let go
Once you sit beneath its spell
It's dark and wide and deep, towards the sea it creeps
I'm so glad I brought along my mandolin
To play the river hymn...

You can ride on it or drink it
Poison it or dam it
Fish in it and wash in it
Swim in it and you can die in it
Run, you river, run

Son, you ain't never seen yourself
No crystal mirror can show it clear, come over here instead
Son, you ain't never eased yourself
Until you laid it down in a river bed
If you hear a lonesome drone, it's as common as a stone
And gets louder as the day grows dim
That's the river hymn...

The whole congregation was standing on the banks of the river
We are gathered to give a little thanks ... thanks.

'The River Hymn" brings to mind images of ladies, gentleman, and children in a setting long ago. The use of the religious "congregation" adds even more purity to the characters in the song. Also consistent with the agrarian myth is the sense of purity in nature in Robertson's description of the river. The river, here, stands in for the soil as valued in the myth. "Lyrically, the song was in keeping with Cahoots' underlying theme of the disappearance of precious things once past their heyday" (Bowman). As in The Band's other songs, though, the music is equally as important to create the song's mood and imagery. 'The song opened with Hudson's stoic nineteenth century parlor piano, after which Helm sings an ode to moments of pastoral beauty, power and grace" (Bowman). The selection of instruments clearly adds further to the imagery created by the song. This imagery, then, is embellished by the listener's own ideals rooted in the American myths.

In "Last of the Blacksmiths," Robertson again writes of the passing of a way of life. This time the subject is the plight of a blacksmith whose labor is no longer needed:

Have mercy, cried the blacksmith
How're you gonna replace human hands?
Found guilty, said the judge
Of not being in demand
In yet another theme of American mythology, "Last of the Blacksmiths" includes a verse about a man who finds his identity by moving to another place.
I moved to the country that cried of shame
I left my home and found a name
No, nobody could explain
The myth of the American frontier says that if you are a failure, move West and you can start anew (Wilson). Robertson completely captures this myth in his line, "I left my home and found a name." The line clearly illustrates the core American value of movement: we believe that we can simply pick up our things and move, allowing us to start all over and become a new person. Thus, by moving, Robertson's character is able to find his name- a new identity.

After Stage Fright and Cahoots the band went on to complete several more albums. Rock of Ages, a live album, was released in 1972 and Moondog Matinee, a collection of oldies, was released in 1973. Northern Lights- Southern Cross emerged at the end of 1975, their last superior album. It included "Acadian Driftwood," a song which chronicled the story of the Acadians, who were exiled from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1750's. The Band's last studio album was Islands, which was released in 1977 to get the musicians out of their contract with Capitol Records.

In a final celebration, The Band announced after their tour in 1976 that they would play one final show at Winterland in San Francisco. It was the site of their very first concerts in 1969. An amazing list of musical guests accompanied them in the concert, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Ringo Star, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond. A film was made of the event, and a triple album was released a year and a half later by Warner Brothers (Bowman).

The Band, then, has embodied the core American myths in their lyrics and in their music. While The Band was defining the American character in their songs, they also came to develop their own identity. And though four of the five members were originally from Canada, their identity too became wrapped in American mythology.

Photographs selected by The Band to complement their albums provide evidence of The Band's identity rooted in the American myths. The agrarian myth, which speaks of simple family values, is evoked in a picture on Music From Big Pink. In the picture, members of The Band pose together with a crowd of their family and neighbors. The picture, captioned "Next of Kin," illustrates The Band's search for heritage and history. While the rest of popular music was rebelling against their mothers and fathers, The Band had nothing but respect for their own families. Robertson spoke about The Band's mentality at the time:

When we were getting ready to make Big Pink there was a very strong thing going on about how, if you were f****d up, it was because it was somebody else's fault. It was your mother or your father, or the last generation. It got obnoxious. We never had that relationship with our parents. We were separated from them and we used to sit around and we would talk about our parents- we missed them- and we would laugh about the funny things they did. We made our first album and we thought, "Well, that's what we do, that's kind of the way we play and that's the kind of songs we write," and we took a picture in there with all of our mothers and fathers. (quoted from Baer 60)
In photographs from their second album, The Band again shows how they have become characters in the myths that their music embodies. One photograph in particular evokes the frontier and agrarian myths. The photo is of the five band members, dressed in dark 1800s-looking attire, standing in front of a large stretch of forested and mountainous landscape. The picture evokes the feeling of a simple time and place in the past, where men could earn their living working the land. The seemingly endless backdrop is illustrative of the tremendous influence of the American frontier myth on The Band's identity.

Finally, the picture of The Band on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine tells us so much about their character. When the magazine approached the musicians to grace the magazine's cover, they selected a specific pose. The photo is taken from behind The Band; its members facing outward to the expansive natural terrain. The Band chose not to display the faces of its individual members, instead letting the music speak for itself. Like the American mythology embodied in The Band's music, the portrait is simple, reflective and anonymous.

The members of The Band have left us with a collection of songs which chronicle our nation's history and mythology. In doing so, The Band has provided its own interpretation and definition of the American character. Their songs combine intensely visual lyrics with brilliant and evocative instrumentation, producing nostalgic and respectful portraits of an America which we all believe in and hope to find.

"This is it," Greil Marcus' editor told him in the spring of 1969, as he sent him off to cover The Band's debut concert. "This is when we find out if there are still open spaces out there" (39). After listening to a decade of music that The Band has produced, we have certainly found the answer to his query. If we can make room for The Band, we can find within ourselves the mythological America they masterfully embody. Theirs is the America we long for- the America we were promised.

Works Cited

  • Baer, Joshua. "The Band: The Robbie Robertson Interview." Musician. May 1982 edition. 60.

  • Bowman, Rob. "The History of The Band". From The Band's web site.

  • Flippo, Chet. "The Band: Across the Great Divide." From the liner notes to The Band's box set. 17-24.

  • Gleason, Ralph J. "The Band." Rolling Stone. October 18, 1969. 44.

  • Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train. New York: Penguin Books. 1990. 39-64.

  • Sing Out!. "The Band." 1970. 45.

  • Viney, Peter. "The Weight." From The Band's web site. 1996.

  • Wilson, Gerald. From class notes. September 5, 1996.


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