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Caledonia Mission

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997

This is a revised version, incorporating some of the useful and helpful comments and information from readers of The Band site.

"Caledonia Mission" - written by Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm plays acoustic guitar, and Richard Manuel plays drums.

I’d enjoyed it for years without ever trying to analyse the lyrics, so much so that in my copy of the I-Ching [1] (dating I hasten to add from way back in 1970) I was surprised to see inscribed in my own so much younger hand a quote from the lyrics:

I do believe in your hexagram,
but can you tell me how they all knew the plan?

So, what’s the song about? I accepted the Greil Marcus opinion in Mystery Train for years. Marcus traces the image of ‘The Quester’ through several Band songs:

Greil Marcus
Looking for salvation (the quester) ends up trying to save others: the woman of Caledonia Mission (she lives hidden behind a wall and the city has a lock on her gate). [3]

Then I was re-reading the 1969 Hawkins interview.

Ronnie Hawkins
I do understand the lyrics though, and better than most people. That one about Caledonia Mission and being surrounded by Mounties, that was one time they got busted at the border. They’re writing about true things, the things that happened to us along the way. [4]

Levon Helm agrees:

Levon Helm
‘Caledonia Mission’ was Robbie’s and Richard sang the lyrics that alluded to the little problem we’d had with the law a few years earlier. [5]

Though Levon was there, it’s surely Rick singing lead, with Richard singing the high part behind him:

Barney Hoskyns
Rick sings the verses in a typically bumpkin-sincere voice, with purring falsetto support from Richard, then lets rip on a chorus Steely Dan might have written had they hailed from somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line. [6]

The bust occurred just before they joined with Dylan and had maximum publicity in Toronto. Levon & The Hawks had been trailed by eight RCMP cars for the hundred miles between the U.S. border crossing at Buffalo and Toronto Airport before being arrested. It caused them hassle for years (read Levon’s autobiography for the details).

Rick Danko
We got set up. This guy was trying to impress my girlfriend. None of us would have known him, but he knew what time we were coming through the border that day, and he told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that we were bringing in a trunkful of pot. [7]

Hoskyns refers to the 1975 song ‘Ring Your Bell’ from Northern Lights as being ‘Robbie’s account of the band getting busted by Mounties at the Canadian border’ [8], but that song appeared six years after the Ronnie Hawkins interview! (It does contain the lines ‘run that rebel across the tracks, with the mounties on his trail’) Same incident, two songs about it? Ronnie Hawkins reading the tea leaves accurately?

I had to relisten a lot of times to get anywhere near that interpretation. There’s obviously some sort of betrayal in the song, and the woman is prevented from seeing the narrator by a magistrate. I’d always half-guessed that it was some kind of parental injunction pulling them apart. Listen and try and find the RCMP version. The lyrics on this site are taken from the sheet music. The printed lyrics read:

I guess you really have to stay
Inside the mission law
down in Modock , Arkansas

There are hints of the ‘bust’ story there:

The singer makes some kind of arrangement with a woman who can foretell the future but lives in some kind of hidebound traditional way. Someone (the watchman) gives the singer a remedy which makes it hard for him to see or feel. He thinks that his magic might be real. The woman is locked away from him, she’s locked away by a magistrate who thinks her tears are a lie, but the singer doesn’t doubt that she wants to escape. The dogs won’t bother her. (sniffer dogs?) He’s got a hiding place they’ll never find (the trunk doesn’t sound that hard to find, but then again The Hawks weren’t bringing in a trunkful of pot anyway), but fate comes in - ‘they’ all knew the plan (they were tipped off). Did she trip or slip on their gifts? (Did she have any part in it?) You know you were just a con. Why did she do it? The singer is hiding out in the dark (or possibly the dawn). He leaves condemning her to stay in the mission (law / hall / walls) down in Modock Arkansas.

The question of the lyrics again. Barney Hoskins calls it ‘a wryly oblique song of longing for a missionary in the non-existent town of Modock, Arkansas’ [9]. I always heard it as ‘inside the mission walls’ and ‘old dark Arkansas’. Walls fits with gate, I guess. And that seems to be what Greil Marcus heard too. I assumed Modock was a mistake. More of this later.

‘Caledonia Mission’ later reappears in a rather ragged version (the horns are intrusive rather than complementary) on Rock of Ages, with the last line changed from ‘down in Modock Arkansas’ to

inside the mission walls
on a river (bank/bench/branch) of Caledonia

It was also an unexpected revival throughout the 1994 to 1997 live shows. I say ‘unexpected’ because it doesn’t seem to feature on any late 60s / early 70s live tapes. Rick Danko sings this in the 1996 Radio Show version:

inside those mission walls
on a river bank in Caledonia …

In a 1994 tape from the Quatro Club in Tokyo, it’s behind those mission walls (and you can be behind a wall, but hardly ‘behind a law’). Mind you he also sings on a river bank in … Tokyo which has nothing to do with it!

So we have Modock, Arkansas and Caledonia as the setting for the story. Having checked the AAA Road Atlas of Arkansas, there seemed to be no town called Caledonia in Arkansas, though there is a small town called Caledonia just north of Columbus, Mississippi, a good 120 miles east of the Mississippi River, which forms the Arkansas - Mississippi border. Even so, the nearest river to this Caledonia is a couple of miles away on the map. A look back at the AAA atlas reveals a tiny town called ‘Moark’ right below the Arkansas / Missouri border, just off Highway 67 - and taking a runaway across a state line would have been a federal offence (Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry step forward). I couldn’t find ‘Modock’ at all, but when the first version of this was posted on the web, I discovered from Jimmy P. in Modok, Arkansas that it does indeed exist, and is about twenty miles south of Levon’s home in Helena. Jimmy adds:

I've been told there is a town named Caledonia here in Arkansas just north of the Louisiana state line near Junction City. That's a long way from here. I can't believe Levon would have even heard of the place. I haven't.

But think about the switch in the lyrics in later years. The bust story mainly involved Rick, and he sings it on stage. I suddenly wondered about Ontario. Back to the atlas, and there it was. Caledonia, on the Grand River a few miles south of Hamilton. Off the main highway, but yes, it’s definitely between the US/Canadian border at Buffalo and Toronto. Ah. (So what was all that stuff about Arkansas then?). Then look again. Caledonia is just inland from Port Dover, which was Levon & The Hawks regular Sunday night gig for awhile. And just below Port Dover is Turkey Point. And Turkey Point Productions deal with Rick Danko’s business affairs nowadays. Levon is quite precise:

Levon Helm
The cops were real proud of themselves. They told us how they had picked us up at the border and followed us all the way into Toronto … ‘You drove so fast we even lost you a couple of times,’ one of them told me. But they were ahead of us too and found us again on the highway that cuts between the lake shore and Route 401. Damn. [10]

Theoretically, you could take the Lake Erie shore road, then cut north through Caledonia to pick up the 401 (which runs from Detroit to Toronto). And that would cut out going through Niagara Falls to the Lake Ontario shore (which looks more logical on the map, but might not be in tourist season). But it still doesn’t figure to me that Caledonia would be so hugely significant in that story that it would title the song. Even if that’s where the RCMP had seen them again, the drama took place at Toronto airport. After reading the first version of this article, Bill Munson looked at Levon’s original account, and noted that he mentions the Metro Police. He adds:

The airport isn't in Metropolitan Toronto, so the Metropolitan Police wouldn't have been involved in the arrest Metro police wouldn't have been involved in the chase either, as Metro is east of the airport (and the guys were coming from the west) airports are federal land (under Canada's constitution), so any bust would have to have been led by the RCMP (i.e., the federal police force) for charges to stick (or, frankly, even be contemplated) the RCMP would have had a car or two at the border, but the eight cars claimed by Levon could only have come from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP - whose badge McCartney is wearing on Sergeant Pepper); the OPP has jurisdiction everywhere in Ontario (except on federal land) but is only active on provincial expressways (like the Queen E) and in rural areas without their own municipal forces (i.e., like much of the area travelled that day)

I think Levon was trying to say that the police refound them on the road that goes from the lakeshore to the 401, which they'd have taken to get to the airport. (The Queen E, or QEW, runs close to the lakeshore and the 401 forms the southern boundary of the airport.) By "the lakeshore", Levon could have been referring either to the shore of the lake or, more likely, to Lakeshore Boulevard / Road, which is the old highway and which all locals call "the Lakeshore."

In other words, the place where the police picked up their trail again was further along from Caledonia, more on the outskirts of Toronto. But they were singing about Caledonia, Ontario. I’d be prepared to bet that. I also think the Arkansas reference could have been a deliberate fictionalisation, a "blind," in 1968, designed to cover the tracks, and divert attention from the actual location, that seemed irrelevant and unnecessary by 1972. Another useful note came in the Guestbook from Greg D:

As a genuine native of Caledonia, Ontario, I've always wondered (since hearing the Rock of Ages version) if the song was related to my hometown. There is indeed a river flowing through the town (the Grand River, largest river in southern Ontario). Caledonia is know to the Band/Hawks, since, as Peter correctly observed, the town is not too far from Port Dover, where the Hawks used to play, situated on the same highway. Secondly, it is adjacent to the Six Nations Reserve where Robbie used to spend summers as a child. Talking to both Rick and Levon after one of their concerts on the reunion tour of 1983, they both knew where the town was, Rick having driven through the previous night on the way to see his folks in the Simcoe/Turkey Point area.There was never a Mission in the town of Caledonia as far as I know, so I don't know what the line "inside the mission walls (law?)" means.

What about the woman? The bust involved a woman, and there’s no reason why the two stories won’t hang together. It seems reasonable that girlfriends might have come from Caledonia or the area. A mission can be a religious calling, a religious building or simply an intent or plan (Mission Impossible). I think the mission law transcription is quite wrong. I’m certain it’s walls, as in later versions. A walled mission (with a walled garden) brings up pictures of the South-West to me, Arizona or New Mexico. The most famous mission walls in American history are the walls of the Alamo Mission. But any building has walls. The area to the north of Kitchener, Ontario is a center for Mennonite religious communities, and there are more in the Niagara area. Who can tell what sort of mission it might have been? But it points to a woman tied into some kind of religious community, desperate to escape with the singer. The resultant trouble with the law seems connected.

OK, it could all relate to a betrayed attempt to carry something across a border, a runaway seems as likely as dope, maybe it was both. I didn’t find the border necessary, and saw it as more universal, and that is the secret of The Band at their best. I used to see a link to the I-Ching in some of the lines that might apply to the bust story:

It’s so strange to arrange it, you know I wouldn’t change it
But hear me if you’re near me, can I just rearange it…
(You throw the sticks and arrange them in lines. There are fixed lines and ‘changing’ lines. A changing line means it rearranges and you read a different interpretation)

You know I do believe in your hexagram … (obviously)

But can you tell me how they all knew the plan … (Yeah, the I-Ching works, it foretells the future, but how do "they" know what’s going to happen)

The I-Ching was a surprisingly ‘hippy-friendly’ theme for Big Pink though, and no quotes (known to me) back it up as the main story. And of course the woman reads the tea leaves as well as reading the hexagrams.

The stories may be based in real events, but are polished into a mythic dimension. My guess is that the relationship story is part of the bust story. I also think that without seeing the Ronnie Hawkins or Levon quotes, the relationship story is more obvious (Greil Marcus and Barny Hoskyns picked it up first, though where Hoskyns gets a missionary from I don’t know). The 1968 Band seemed to want to keep it secret too.

Caledonia is interesting as a name. First, even The Band seem confused between ‘Caldonia’ (Louis Jordan tune later covered by Muddy Waters, now part of their stage act) and ‘Caledonia Mission’. On the box set, ‘Caledonia Mission’ (Rock of Ages) is wrongly titled ‘Caldonia Mission’, and in his book, Levon adds an aside that ‘I believe (Miss Fanny) looked a lot like Caledonia’ (which must mean Caldonia). On the New Orleans laser disc, they list ‘Caledonia’, but perform ‘Caldonia’. Then again, the blues tune must have been an abbreviated form of "Caledonia" or even a misspelling. Caledonia is the original Roman name for Northern Britain, later becoming restricted to Scotland. Van Morrison named his seventies touring group, The Caledonia Soul Orchestra.

The song has not had many airings on official releases, and doesn’t appear on 1969 to 1990 tapes either. It was missed off the compilations until the box set. It has been a constant in recent (1994 to 1997) Band live shows, with Rick Danko moving to acoustic guitar and taking lead vocal, and Randy Ciarlante playing bass. This is a pity. I’ve nothing against Ciarlante’s bass playing on the song, but Rick’s 1968 bass line is one of his great melodic lines pulling the story along. Another note in the Guestbook from B. Gold recalls Robbie switching to bass for this number in a live show at the Filmore East.

Album versions

Music From Big Pink
Rock of Ages
Across The Great Divide, box set (Rock of Ages version)

Radio shows

Westwood One Superstar Concerts, #96-29
(Las Vegas 16 May 1996)


Danko / Manuel, Lone Star Café, 1 February 1984
Danko / Manuel / Hudson, Lone star Café, 31 March 1985
Then most Band live shows from 1994 to 1997.


  1. The I-Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese guide to divination based on patterns of six lines known as hexagrams.
  2. ‘Caledonia Mission’ © J.R. Robertson
  3. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
  4. Rolling Stone August 9 1969.
  5. Levon Helm / Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire
  6. Barney Hoskyns, Across The Great Divide (Viking 1993)
  7. Levon Helm / Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire
  8. Barney Hoskyns, Across The Great Divide (Viking 1993)
  9. Barney Hoskyns, Across The Great Divide (Viking 1993)
  10. Levon Helm / Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire

Copyright © Peter Viney 1996.
Peter Viney is working on a critical discography of The Band. Comments welcome.

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