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When You Awake

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

Following the recent article on 'The Unfaithful Servant' I thought the notes would be greatly improved by asking for comments before it was posted. In the past, the comments have been spread over the Guestbook, without being attached to the article, which is a loss. Thanks to all who contributed.
-- Peter Viney

"When You Awake"
Written by R. Manuel & J.R. Robertson
From "The Band" (1969)
Rick Danko - lead vocal. Richard Manuel - drums.

When You Awake is by no means a prominent song from The Band. It’s missing from all the compilation albums. 1 However, on the Classic Albums video it’s one of the songs that Robbie and Rick devote most time to. It had a special place for me, because I couldn’t get it out of my head in the winter of 1970. There’s a reason. I had a beaten-up, hand-painted 1953 car, a Vauxhall Wyvern. It was the most American-looking car from the British branch of General Motors and had a peeling chrome grill like a classic Studebaker. Much loved as it was, I spent weeks trying to keep it going. As I was living in the icy winds of East Anglia, that line My old car froze-up last night wouldn’t leave my head. Because it often did. I became adept at replacing the water pump with scrap-yard components, while humming / muttering the last verse to myself. I’d forgotten all about this until I was talking to an old friend from the same era who asked if it was still my favourite song. Well, no, it isn’t. It wasn’t then either, but I did keep singing it to myself. But any song from the brown album is worthy of consideration.

This is a strange song in that it breaks up the full blast Americana of the three preceding tracks and the following one. Listen to it again, and it hardly sounds like any kind of rock song at all. Like all their best tracks you grab images as you relisten but you’re hard put to connect these images together (cf We Can Talk, Chest Fever).

Robbie Robertson
It’s a story about someone who passes something on to you, and you pass it on to someone else. But it’s something you take to heart and carry with you your whole life. 2

The link here is that we have a narrator’s voice (the little boy) in the verse, and Grandpa’s voice in the chorus. The narrator begins each verse with reporting something that ‘Ollie’ said: Ollie told me … / Ollie showed me … / Ollie warned me … .

Barney Hoskyns
This enchanting Manuel-Robertson song concerned a young boy picking up sage advice from his Grandpa and from Ollie, who may or may not be the same person. 3

I just can’t see how Ollie and Grandpa are the same person. It starts out:

Ollie told me , I’m a fool
So I walked on down the road a mile
went to the house that brings a smile
sat upon my Grandpa’s knee
What do you think he said to me?

That sounds as if the narrator is retreating from Ollie, and seeking solace a mile away at Grandpa’s. I think that’s pretty transparent! Ollie is mainly a voice that sets out problems, while Grandpa’s tone is soothing (it’s hard to work out what Grandpa’s words mean). Without thinking I saw Ollie as parental - but maybe a stepfather or uncle.

When I was a kid I thought it to be a simple song about family, the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson, a place for the boy to go to listen and fall asleep to the comforting words of his grandfather. Upon further listenings it seem like 'Ole' gives as much advice as the grandfather does. I'm perplexed. Who is Ole? My guess is Ole is the singer's older brother. I don't know why. 4

Everyone seems to agree that it’s ‘Ollie’ though it’s pronounced ‘Owe-lee’ and every Oliver I knew had a short ‘o’ sound as in ‘got’ at the start of Ollie, not the longer ‘o’ sound in ‘note’.

I was perplexed when I saw this on the lyrics as I’d always heard it as ‘Oh, they …’ (Oh, they told me … /Oh, they showed me / Oh, they warned me …) which utilises the general ‘they’ and seemed to make a lot more sense to me. It’s the ‘they’ that we often use to talk about government organizations:

They ought to do something about road deaths.
They should do something about teenage crime.

We never define who ‘they’ are; but ‘they’ have the wisdom and power to do "something" about a problem. "they" also give advice. When I asked for comments in the Band Guestbook I was pleased to see that it wasn’t just me:

Ragtime Willie
The ('official') lyrics as noted by Jan say: "Ollie told me", but for many years I heard Rick sing "Oh, they told me", "Oh, they showed me", "Oh, they warned me". Who is Ollie? 5

Stanley Landau
By the way on the issue of "Ollie" vs. "Oh they", I too for many years thought it was "Oh they", but then some time in the early 70’s I got hold of a Band songbook which indicated that the correct lyric is "Ollie". 6

Pat Brennan
The songbook that covered the Brown Album has "Ollie told me..." as the first line 7

When I first read Hoskyns saying it was "Ollie" I thought ‘What an idiot,’ but that’s what appears in the lyrics. So I’m wrong. It’s clearer in the solo version (not that this is accurate elsewhere, but he couldn’t get this bit wrong). Pity. They works better! Anyway, Pete Rivard comes up with one plausible explanation of 'Owlie':

Pete Rivard
I'm another one who always heard "Oh, they told me..." in When You Awake. When I moved out here to the Upper Midwest, I discovered a whole genre of joketelling concerning a Scandinavian couple called Ole and Lena. Typically, the jokes center around Ole, or his wife's, cluelessness, and sometimes are inverted to make Ole the smart one among some of his oafish friends. Now, Ole is pronounced Oh lee, in these stories. I wonder if Robbie had picked up some of these tales from Dylan, a native Minnesotan, or someone else from this area, never bothered to check on the spelling, and used him as a character dispensing folksy advice. 8

Stu Huska comes up with another:

Stu Huska
Several years ago I heard Rick Danko perform "When You Awake" in a small intimate venue. Rick asked for requests and as he started to sing he said " My mother's name, God rest her soul, was Leyola and her friends used to call her 'Ole'" He then went directly into this wonderful rendition of "When You Awake" Perhaps Rick's bandmates were also thinking of Leyola Danko when they penned this whimsical tale. 9

Stu's note is supported by the Classic Albums solo version where Danko sings:

Ollie showed me, the fork in the road
she said take to your left …

which seemed to change Ollie’s perceived gender, and was something I'd wondered about. It would seem that this was deliberate. So why did we all see Ollie as male? Looking back, there's no reason. Ronnie Hawkins allegedly once freaked out because Robbie was reading The Way of Zen on the road and though no one would claim that these were zen aphorisms, they are homilies - odd pieces of advice strung together and recalled by the narrator, with the soothing voice of Grandpa on the chorus functioning in much the way that the chorus’s soothing voice does later in King Harvest. It would be interesting to know how Robbie and Richard divided the task.

Phil from California
Always sounded to me like two songs joined together. The"Wash my hands in lye water" part onward (sounds like) maybe a song idea by Richard tagged onto a RR song? And how about fading out on a line so rich as "If I thought it would do any good I'd stand on the rock where Moses stood". Pete Townsend would have written a whole concept album around a line like that and The Band fades on it. Great stuff. Great guitar picking by RR too. 10

The snatches of advice and the way things don’t quite fit together, but resonate well in phrases, reminds me of We Can Talk, which is Richard’s lyrics. I agree that it sounds like two songs welded together, but I'd guess the other way round, with the Manuel part first and the Robertson second.

Ollie (or ‘they’) is a critical voice - Ollie told me I’m a fool ….

In verse 2, Ollie showed the fork in the road and added a list of parental style advice…

Use your days and save your nights …
Be careful where you step and watch what you eat …
Sleep with the light on and you got it beat … (fear?)

In verse 3, Ollie warns that it’s a mean old world … the street don’t greet you, yes, it’s true and the verse ends with:

Read the writing on the wall
I heard it when I was very small …

Which means this stream of advice is pretty continual.

This is what Grandpa has to say, as it’s transcribed:

When You Awake
You will remember everything
You will be hanging on a string … from your …
When you believe you will relieve (be? / relive?)the only soul
That you were born to grow old and never know

I don’t believe this is necessarily an accurate transcription, but nothing I come up with makes any more sense. The solo version on Classic Albums is clearer:

When You Awake
You will remember everything
You will be hanging on a string
When you believe you will relieve the only soul
That you were born with, to grow old and never know

The with is on the printed lyrics. It’s just not very prominent on the original.

Stanley Landau
On the "Before the Flood" tour I heard the song performed twice and the line "You will be hangin’ on a string from your…" was finished with the word "heart" ie. "you will be hanging on a string from your heart". 11

This is the soothing advice from Grandpa and it’s set as part of a dream.

Confused? You will be because at this point, after three verses and choruses, we suddenly get a different refrain which is repated twice and seems to have little connection.

The next section is jaunty:

Wash my hand in lye water
I got a date with the captain’s daughter …

Sounds like the boy is growing up now. No need for more advice from Ollie and Grandpa, and he’s making sure his hands are disinfected, bleached even, before his date with the (presumably luscious) Captain’s daughter. I suppose this is an extreme version of the kid continually checking for under-arm excretions before the first date. 'lye' is a strong, caustic alkaloid. I've never seen the phrase 'lye water' elsewhere and it's not listed in Websters either.

But again refer to the Rick Danko solo version:

I got a date with the Captain’s doctor

Sounds less fun! And if this song is so personal, why such a change? The official lyrics say daughter and there's no doubt in my mind that is what was on the original.

He changes:

You may be right and you might be wrong


You might be right and you might be wrong

which is hardly crucial, though a tad less subtle.

Even worse he changes my classic line:

My old car froze up last night


My old car broke down last night

And, to me at least, this is crucial. He makes a lot of fluffs on the guitar as well, which makes you wonder about the intent of the direct cut to Robbie picking out the same song expertly on the video. But then the quote above would indicate that the song has special relevance to Rick Danko, so you have to consider that these changes are not necessarily slips. (But Danko is not usually too accurate on lyrics).

This is followed by a reference to the problems that made them move south from Canada to record the album:

Snow’s gonna come and the frost’s gonna bite
My old car froze up last night …
Ain’t no reason to hang your head
I could wake up in the morning dead, Oh, oh!
And if I thought it would do any good
I’d stand on the Rock where Moses stood …

with a fast fade on the last line. The last line is a direct quote from the chorus of the traditional spiritual I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy:

If I could, I surely would
Stand on that rock where Moses stood.

The rock where Moses stood is either old time religion, and/or the Ten Commandments … but the fast fade into nothingness is a comment in itself, and the singer would only stand there if he thought it would do any good. Greil Marcus was critical of the reproduction of this fade on live shows:

Greil Marcus
They presented perfect replicas of their records - to the point where Rick Danko would back off from the mike at the end of When You Awake, imitating the studio fade - the surest way to please an audience without really moving it. 13

Greil (most uncharacteristically) fails to get the point. This fade into oblivion is crucial to the song, and Rick Danko was absolutely correct to maintain it.

It’s got something to do with advice and choices but as a text it crumbles into pieces the more you try to dissect or analyse it. Yet as a song it makes perfect sense, and that is the point.


The Band

Compilation albums:
This track appears on no compilation albums.

Official live album:
Unsurprisingly, it was never a live speciality, though it turned up on Dylan and The Band’s Before The Flood set in 1974. This may have been a concious attempt to put in something new (i.e. not on Rock of Ages ) to join the unreleased Endless Highway.

Classic Albums - The Band
Rick Danko does the whole song solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Interesting lyric snatches - Rick sings The Captain’s doctor rather than The Captain’s daughter. Robbie plays the guitar part solo on his Telecaster, followed by isolating the guitar part on the faders to demonstrate that the song could only have been written on guitar, not keyboards. He says piano had no role, so Richard played drums.

Before And After The Flood
An earlier date on the Before The Flood tour. Live at Madison Square Garden, 30 January 1974.

Down South
Bootleg CD of the Charlotte, NC show on 17 January 1974. This bootleg only has the Band tracks.


  1. Richard Manuel songs generally get shorter shrift in compilations. Though some see this lack as Robertson’s revisionism, it can be partly explained by the inability of the current line-up to play these songs since Richard’s death, which makes them less prominent as the years pass by. This was already happening in the early 1970s as Richard stopped writing and withdrew. It was already established by The Last Waltz, and has stuck.
  2. Quoted in Barney Hoskyns ‘Across the Great Divide’. Seems to fit ‘The Weight’ just as well!
  3. Barney Hoskyns ‘Across the Great Divide’
  4. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 8 December 1998
  5. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 7 December 1998
  6. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 8 December 1998
  7. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 8 December 1998
  8. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 7 December 1998
  9. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 8 December 1998
  10. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 7 December 1998
  11. Posted on the Band Guestbook, 8 December 1998
  12. In 1969, Dillard and Clark did a fine version of this on Through The Morning Through The Night which also includes Four Walls, which Danko did a send-up version of on solo shows. In the Guestbook, Mike from New Jersey quotes this as being from from O Mary Don't You Weep Don't You Mourn which has the same lines. Is it the same song?
  13. Greil Marcus, ‘Mystery Train’ 4th edition.

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