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Whispering Pines

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Diamond Lil requested notes on this song which led me to put together this piece. As I posted early in January, I said I'd do it and then went to Orlando, Florida. The third day I found a message on my hotel answering machine, which had arrived at the wrong room. A man's voice suggested meeting at the Whispering Pines restaurant at Ford Wilderness. There is a restaurant there called The Whispering Canyon, but I found the coincidence spooky, particularly given the city I was in. Whenever I've driven north through Orlando , I've felt depressed as the signs appear to Winter Park. Actually, it's a pleasant suburb with leafy streets and parallel parking that reminds me of England. But I don't think anyone who loves this music can see the name without the baggage it carries.

Whispering Pines
Written by Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson
From "The Band" (1969)

Barney Hoskyns
With its heartrending Richard Manuel melody, "Whispering Pines" was a cry of exquisite desolation that no one but he could have sung.

In the Pines

Pines can be found throughout the North American continent from Florida to Maine and Alaska to Southern California. They're characteristic of New York state too. My home town in England is famous for its pines which reputedly create a deeply relaxing atmosphere. I'm surrounded by them. Scots pines, Monterey pines and Maritime pines. They were planted on barren heathland in the 1870s by local landowners, who then left them for thirty or forty years to grow into a forest. Having got themselves a forest they started cutting clearings and building houses and getting rich. When I went to Monterey I was surprised to see that their pines are tiny compared to ours. The Pacific winds don't let them grow to be 130 years old like the one swaying gently at the bottom of my garden.

If you speak to environmentalists, pine forests are comparatively dead places. An oak supports hundreds of species of insects and birds and animals, pines support far fewer. When pines have been planted closely in serried ranks, the forest floor is a gloomy, grey and sunless place. Pines can have a melancholy image, as in the classic Leadbelly song In The Pines:

In the pines, in the pines
where the sun never shines
That's where I spent last night

The location of the pines in this song puzzled me. Here is an interchange from Ruth Albert Spencer's 1985 interview with Richard Manuel:

Ruth Albert Spencer
What do you think was the impact of Woodstock and this area on the first three Band albums?

Richard Manuel
I don't think they would have happened without it. I think this environment had a great deal to do with it.

Ruth Albert Spencer

Richard Manuel
Personally, just nature. I love it here. I love the season changes. I love all that.

Ruth Albert Spencer
Are you saying that the natural beauty and the changing of the seasons really had an impact on the kind of music that you wrote?

Richard Manuel
Yeah, I like to get out and wander around in nature sometimes.

Pines might surround Woodstock, but this is a song about pines near to the sea. As well as the rustle of pines, there are the waves rushing in, seagulls crying, foghorns through the night. When I thought of Manuel and Robertson's biographies, images of the sea didn't seem to fit their early years - Stratford, Toronto, Arkansas, Woodstock. All miles away. Of course it's not "about" the sea, but I was interested in the use of sea images from a writer (or two writers) not known for coastal living. Except that they were playing a long summer stint in Atlantic City when the call from Dylan arrived.

Levon mentions the song in his autobiography:

Levon Helm
(Richard and Jane Manuel's ) house came with an old piano that had one key really out of tune. Richard used to work out his music on it. So when we were in California, he spent days retuning the studio piano so Whispering Pines would sound the way he wanted it. When we went back into the studio to finish our album a bit later that spring of 1969, "Whispering Pines" was one of the songs we took into the Hit Factory, Jerry Ragavoy's studio in New York.

It was therefore one of the last three songs recorded for the album, post-dating the Winterland concert. Joe Forno elaborates.

Joe Forno
Richard had briefly lived in a house in Woodstock that once belonged to the painter George Bellows. There was an old piano in the house which had been left behind and Richard wrote "Whispering Pines" on it. It had one key that was out of tune, and when he came to record the song he had the studio piano tuned the same way, so that one key was still out. That's what's responsible for the vamp figure at the beginning and end of the song.

So it was started among the pines in Woodstock and finished in California. California has it all - the ocean, the pines and the fog. The sounds of nature were a vital part of the mix.

The Collaboration

When a song is a collaboration, the first thing you tend to do is try to work out who did what. Some writers divide the work neatly between music and lyrics (Elton John & Bernie Taupin), while others put a joint name on collaborations which are more from one than the other (Lennon-McCartney). There are no fewer than five Manuel / Robertson collaborations.

On Music From Big Pink, Richard Manuel wrote three songs alone and one with Dylan. On The Band he co-wrote three, all with Robbie Robertson. On Stage Fright there are two, both Manuel-Robertson collaborations. And that, sadly, was that. There is a distinctive melodic feel that runs through several of Manuel's songs. Lonesome Suzie, In A Station, Tears of Rage, When You Awake, Whispering Pines, and Sleeping are recognisably the work of one composer. We know how work was shared on Tears of Rage where Dylan is the lyricist.

Richard Manuel
I lean more into chord changes and melodic stuff. I can write music very easily, but when it comes to words, I cringe. It's hard to get those words in the right slot, to just get going.

Richard Manuel
The songs that I wrote myself - I'd usually have a musical idea, then I'd give it a theme, an idea to go with it.

That places the melody as well as the theme of whispering pines with Manuel. Barney Hoskyns had interviewed Robertson on this, and Hoskyns writes so well on the song that I think a full quotation from him is essential.

Barney Hoskyns
Finding it increasingly difficult to come up with lyrics, Richard took the chords to Robbie ... the lyric that Robbie worked around Richard's vocal lines was one of the most beautiful he ever wrote, a song of intense loneliness set beside an ocean that seemed to symbolize the singer's endless sense of loss. As sung by Richard in a haunting blend of his falsetto and full voices, the words could once again have been directly about him ... once again, too, his colleagues played behind him with the tenderest touch, Robbie picking out delicate acoustic notes, Garth showering the track with magical sounds from the Lowery. On the last verse, Levon joined Richard in a call-and-response duet that must rate as one of the saddest and loveliest passages in the history of rock ... If the image was one of almost engulfing aloneness, the music none the less spoke of profound peace, producing a remarkable kind of resolution. The last two words the voices sang were simply, "the lost are found."

In the 1985 Woodstock Times interview, Richard returns to the theme of lyrics and his problems in finding ones to put his heart into:

Richard Manuel
It's especially hard for me to pick lyrics to songs, lyrical songs, because I can't just get on a na, na, na, na song, you know. I have to have some kind of lyrical content ... I've got a lot of songs, but no lyrics ...

A quote from Robbie in the same section suggests that Robbie helped a little with the music also:

Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
Richard always had this very plaintive attitude in his voice, and sometimes just in his sensitivity as a person. I tried to follow that, to go with it and find it musically. We both felt very good about this song.

Robertson has retained the gift of writing in a Richard Manuel-style. The melody as well as the lyrics of Fallen Angel are a tribute to Manuel. People have said that the lyrics to Whispering Pines are so perfect for Richard, but maybe it needs another person to do that.

The Lyrics

Divorcing the lyrics from the music is generally an error. In some compositions the words came first and the setting second; in others the music came first, and the music was the starting point here. Classical composers have always tried to create ambience through the music. It happened much less in rock, that is until the 1980s when musicians discovered you could doodle around atmospherically and sell the results in healthfood shops and "environmental" stores. They called it New Age. 11

The music creates the atmospherics of the song with the organ fills making a major contribution, and the mood is of rustling pines, waves splashing on shingle, foghorns in the distance. You can't approach the song in the same way as Robertson's more narrative songs. Here the words create atmosphere rather than build a story. The intent is different, and they don't bear analysis in the same way. The words are not oblique or metaphoric in the way that some of the other lyrics are. Mostly the words mean directly what they purport to mean. This was Diamond Lil's original post on the net:

Diamond Lil
The tune has always intrigued me, and I'd be interested to hear your remarks about it. I once asked Richard about the song, and he looked at me with those Richard eyes and told me to listen and I'd hear it. Now, every time I walk through the woods behind my house and hear the pines whispering, I think of Richard.

I'd guess that Richard meant listen to the total effect, don't try to analyze words, but go with the ambience. This last sentence should be read twice before proceeding because everything that follows is in this context.

It's not only the words, but something in the melody echoes In My Room by Brian Wilson. Just as Robbie Robertson wrote The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down specifically for Levon, the words he put to Manuel's song take the solitariness of Lonesome Suzie (a straight Manuel lyric) and expand it.

The lyrics on the Toshiba-EMI remaster hit the usual amusing note. They begin If you find me in a blow ... I guess Clinton always claims to have been a fan of The Band. Foghorn through the night becomes Or go through the night. The worst travesty is when the beautiful The lost are found becomes Across the lonely sky. Someone was presumably paid for transcribing these.

It's tempting to imagine that it's directly (auto)biographical, which everyone has tended to do, though no one supposes the other songs are. The singer is isolated, either in a gloom or in a dream. Depressed or daydreaming (or out of it) in a lonely room.

However gloomy the room may be,

If only one star shines, that's just enough to get inside.

The star is the ray of love, because

I will wait until it all goes round
With you in sight, the lost are found

This gets picked up later, when he sings: Protect my only light, for she once belonged to me. (The original lyric transcription on the website has 'cause she once belonged to me, but I'm sure the lyric contains the much more formal for.) So with her in sight, the singer rediscovers himself. But if she once belonged to him, she no longer does. Later we get:

I can feel you standing there
But I don't see you anywhere

which harks directly back to the previous thought, with you in sight, the lost are found. That promise can't be fulfilled. She might be present, but he can't see her. He has to see her for the lost to be found.

Standing by the well, wishing for the rains
Reaching for the clouds, for nothing else remains

The two immediate collocations with a well are Radcyffe Hall's classic lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness and the well of creativity. We can discount the first, except that this 1928 book was at its peak of fame / notoriety in the late 60s so that the title was well-known. The well of creativity is relevant. Manuel was finding it increasingly hard to write. Robbie Robertson has said that they all tried hard to encourage him. They persisted through Stage Fright. The well was drying up, so Richard was wishing for the rains. Something to fill the well, and meet his aspirations, Reaching for the clouds, because nothing else remains. The creative impulse gives his life its meaning. The parallel with the end in Winter Park leaps out, except that no one has any right to guess what might have been going through his mind. 13

You could write a thesis or two on the connection between meteorology and recreational drugs in rock lyrics. As Dylan commentators have often pointed out, rain, fog and snow are (unsubtle) drug references from being lost in the rain in Juarez14 to Rainy Day Women to Quinn The Eskimo. Of course this doesn't mean that Singing in The Rain or Bobby Vinton's Rain, Rain, Go Away are laden with hidden drug references. But here, the final verse piles on some suspects: wishing for the rain / try looking through a haze / drifting in a daze. This is ironic given The Band's perceived public contrast with the California groups at the time of release. Ostensibly, they were the opposite of the drug-drenched San Francisco sound. The haze and daze might fit the drug connection, but in this song the rains are as described above. They're a life force bringing hope. As recently as Broken Arrow 15 Robbie had the singer give his love a bottle of rain. The video showed a desert landscape, a place where rain was hope and promise, not obscured vision. Pines in themselves have a reputation for inducing deep relaxation.

This is not a song about the weather.16 If the pines are whispering, the night is not still, and so there'd be no reason for a foghorn. It's about atmospheres and we can embrace a rustling tree and fog (or a haze) without analysing the likelihood of their co-existence. If I'd been asked to place the sea17, I'd have said "North-East" without thinking, but the cold, cold sun seems like a good California image, with resonances of Nathaneal West. The sun is there, but the warmth and emotion isn't.

The line is repeated:

I will wait until it all goes round
With you in sight, the lost are found

As Hoskyns noted, there is a resolution in the way the last four words are sung. It's a statement, the lost are found.

Classic Albums: The Band

The cut on Classic Albums is used as a tribute to Richard, introduced with quotes from Levon, Rick, Robbie and Eric Clapton. As Whispering Pines seems the perfect expression of what they are saying, I'll quote them.

Levon Helm
Richard was always our lead singer ... and I always felt real confident with Richard in The Band. I knew that nobody had a better singer than what we had.

Eric Clapton
He had this amazing power to move you with his voice and his presence even. ... I suppose it's just that thing that when he came into a room ... you were just drawn to the amount of energy there was in his music. He was very shaky and fragile and scared, and sometimes, in a reverse way, that had a lot of power, that drew you and attracted you.

Robbie Robertson
The hurt in his voice ... there's a certain element of pain in there, that you didn't know if he was trying to reach the note or he was just a guy with a heart that had been hurt.


The Band (1969)

Across the Great Divide (box set)
The Band - The Collection (Castle 1992)
The Most of The Band (Australian, 1994)
The Band: 36 All-Time Greatest Hits (Time-Life, 1998)

Surprisingly, given Hoskyns professed admiration for the song, it does not appear on 'The Shape I'm In: The Very Best of the Band" (1998) which he compiled.

It appears on the Classic Albums: "The Band" program (available on video, laser disc and DVD). It's the album track, with a mismatched slo-mo film of Richard live. I don't think he's singing Whispering Pines either.

Mid-eighties tapes of Richard Manuel solo and with Rick Danko exist, but this song does not feature on the ones I've heard. Nor can I find it on any Band set lists on the website. It's possible that it was never performed live by The Band, another victim of failing to match stage dynamics. A recent Guestbook entry noted John Hall singing it live.


  1. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide'
  2. "In The Pines" (aka "Black Girl") Traditional, arranged Ledbetter (Leadbelly). Levon has said this was part of their early stage act. It's unusually country for a blues. Also known as Black Girl (a UK hit by The Four Pennies in the mid-60s) and recently prominent by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana's Unplugged session, with 'Ma' girl' replacing 'Black girl'.
  3. Ruth Albert Spencer, 'Conversations with The Band', The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985
  4. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies 'This Wheel's On Fire'
  5. Quoted by Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide'. Hoskyns got this from a 1987 radio broadcast on CIUT-FM Toronto and precised it. This was a two part program broadcast on 14 and 21 November 1987 entitled "The Music of Richard Manuel". I was tempted to quote the original, but Hoskyns version only omits more information about Bellows (who did paintings of prize fighters).
  6. Interview in "Time" magazine by William Bender 12 January 1970
  7. Ruth Albert Spencer, 'Conversations with The Band', The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985
  8. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide' - using such a huge quote made me question the value of me writing this at all, rather than just referring everyone to Hoskyns. But there are enough people out there who either won't read Hoskyns or get hot under the collar at the mention of his name. Read him without prejudice on this one.
  9. Ruth Albert Spencer, 'Conversations with The Band', The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985
  10. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide'
  11. I saw a recent interview where a major characteristic of Canada was said to be "New Age music in every store and mall"!
  12. Diamond Lil, Guestbook on The Band website, early January 1999
  13. The 1985 Ruth Albert Spencer interview reveals deep dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, and the lack of "soul" and creativity at that time.
  14. Bob Dylan. 'JustLike Tom Thumb's Blues'
  15. 'Broken Arrow' by Robbie Robertson, 1986
  16. My younger son was annoyed by Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams". After hearing "Thunder only happens when it's raining" he pointed out that this was meteorologically inaccurate.
  17. The foghorn is calling out to sea. An old truism about British and American English is the use of "ocean" in the US and "sea" in the UK. The difference is not so much linguistic as due to the fact that the USA is surrounded by oceans and the UK by seas. Both words exist for both. There's the Bering Sea and the Sea of Cortez. Nevertheless, if I were on the beach in the USA, I'd say "Look at the sea" not "Look at the ocean."
  18. All interviewed on "Classic albums: "The Band" video 1997

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