by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1996
Music From Big Pink's initial success was, in retrospect, surprisingly modest for an album which frequently appears in lists of the Top 100 Rock Albums of All Time. It got to #30 in the US charts while the single, The Weight, written by Robbie Robertson, reached only #63. Other artists had more sucess with covering The Weight. Versions by Jackie DeShannon (US #55, 1968), Aretha Franklin (US #19, April 1969, featuring Duane Allman on guitar), The Supremes with The Temptations (US #46, September 1969) all charted. Significantly for both royalties and for general public awareness, the Diana Ross and The Supremes With The Temptations album from which the single was taken reached US #2 and the Aretha Franklin album, Soul 69, reached US #15. The Weight was also heard on the soundtrack of the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider in 1969, which in turn spawned a successful soundtrack album (US #6 in October 1969 and 41 weeks on the chart). The Band agreed to their version being used on the film soundtrack, then refused permission for it to appear on the subsequent album. Smith did a close cover version which can be heard on the Dunhill soundtrack album. Versions also appeared on albums by Bloomfield and Kooper (Live Adventures of Bloomfield & Kooper), Spooky Tooth (a very direct cover, with the interesting addition of harmonica), The Staple Singers and King Curtis. Virtually every cover cuts out a verse or two. Four hit singles as well as its presence on even more albums within a year means a high profile, in spite of the modest sales of the original single. In the UK the single was more successful, just failing to get into the top twenty (#21 on September 28 1968). In other words, the Band were not solely responsible for making the song a rock classic, but it is the number they are most associated with, and it turns up on every anthology and nearly every recorded live concert.
The Weight is the centrepiece of the album, both musically and lyrically. First, Robbie Robertson on The Weight:
(On the album, The Weight closes side one, so Robertson must mean it was the first song written for Big Pink.)
(The Martin guitar factory is indeed in Nazareth Pennsylvania.)
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. Neighbouring towns might be called Jerusalem or Babylon ... or Jericho (which was a deliberate reference in the Band's comeback album title in 1993). 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 1880s . Gunsmoke ran from 1955 to 1975 and was the archtypal TV western. Chester Goode was the name of the deputy marshall in the series who spent his time limping rapidly along the dusty main street dragging his ramrod-stiff gammy leg. In the TV series, Chester had a catch-phrase. As he limped after the town marshall, Matt Dillon, he used to shout out 'Marshall Dillon!', 'Marshall Dillon!' (Marshall Dylan! Marshall Dylan? ). Carmen might be the programme's Miss Kitty, who owned the Longbranch Saloon - a tart with a heart. Old Luke's another town character (not from the TV series this time) 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...
OK, a Cannonball summons up a streamlined 1930's train, and a wild west Carmen wouldn't be invited 'Come on let's go downtown' because the one-street town I see wouldn't distinguish between town and downtown. Chester caught the narrator in the fog, which doesn't conjure the west much either. John Simon, who produced the album says that 'Crazy Chester' was a real person, known to the members of the Band.  Levon Helm maintains that everyone in the song was known to them.
Levon's quote places Luke in the Wild West as well, albeit a fake Wild West. It doesn't matter. Other people place the mystic town in the Deep South. The lyrics are impressionistic and will live with your picture as well as my picture and whatever Robbie's picture and Levon's picture might have been. A Time magazine article in 1970 read the beginning of the song as a meeting between an old testament character and a 1970 rock musician:
I pulled into Nazareth
It sounds pretty New Testament - no room at the inn, but this Nazareth is set in an American landscape. The guy he meets is a town booster - a-skinnin' and a-grinnin', but has zero to offer. It might be that a rock musician pulls into Nazareth, Pennsylvania but if so, Nazareth warps itself into the biblical town then into a western town before his eyes. Robbie liked playing with time and place. In "Up On Cripple Creek" he leaps from the 1890s Colorado gold rush (at Cripple Creek) to Lake Charles, Louisiana watching Spike Jones on the box, presumably in the 1950s.
I've heard a few interpretations - a Canadian musician swore to me in 1971 that 'Take a load off Fanny' was all about catching and disseminating the clap (= a load), and that there was a double take - 'off' could also be 'of' (presumably using the English sense of the word 'fanny' rather than the American one) - Take a load off Fanny/of Fanny, and you put the load right on me. The clap is Miss Fanny's regards to everyone. Of course, being Canadian, he claimed to have been told this directly by a member of The Band. Twenty years later, another Canadian assured me that this was perfectly true, again tracing the explanation to an un-named Band member. I can easily believe that a Band member told someone this, but it doesn't mean it's true. I'm interested that this particular story is so widespread, and so ignored by Robertson when he's talking about the lyrics. While we're worrying about intepretations of a load, move over to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
So maybe a dose of clap is part of the weight, or more likely, a symbol of the weight. The same Canadian source thought that verse 3 was about a bordello (Go Down Miss Moses ... there's nothing you can say ...). On the other hand, 'Go Down Moses' is the title of a short story by William Faulkner, which in turn gives its name to a collection of seven stories about the South. Robbie has mentioned a fondness for Faulkner. Barney Hoskyns says the characters are like characters from a story by William Faulkner or Carson McCullers. 
Faulkner's story is about an African-American small-town crook, Samuel Beauchamp, who is on death row in Chicago (about to 'go down' for first degree murder). His grandmother in Mississippi is trying to pay for his body to be brought home after execution . The story is told through the eyes of a newspaper man who visits her house just before the execution (waiting on the judgment day?) and everyone's chanting:
'He could hear a third voice, which would be that of Hamp's
wife - a true constant soprano which ran without words beneath
the strophe and antistrophe of the brother and sister:
This semi-gospel song has a wordless soprano running behind it, then (Richard Manuel's part?). When they're talking about raising the money for a coffin, the newspaper man says:
'And I understand that old Luke Beauchamp had some money in the bank.'
Critics argue that all seven stories in 'Go Down Moses' form an episodic novel.  Five of the stories feature the same family, which has both white and black descendants. Race relations are central to the book, and of course The Weight blends black gospel and white country. Lucas Beauchamp (old Luke), was black, the central character and the grandfather of the condemned man. He features most heavily in 'The Fire and The Hearth'. I don't for a moment think that Robbie was making a deliberate and directly parallel literary reference, but there has to be some atmosphere derived from the Faulkner collection. I don't even know why the last story is called 'Go Down Moses' as it was surely Joseph who was sold into captivity.
One commentator swore that The Weight was all about dope dealing (assuming a rather literal and mundane sense of 'a weight' and interpreting 'fix your rack' as 'fix your pain ... by giving you a fix'). Websters Dictionary gives rack as 'a cause of anguish or pain or the resulting suffering.' It also gives an obsolete meaning 'the shock of meeting'. Then Dave Marsh talks about 'Luke with his bag sinking low' which has got to be a misinterpretation.  David Hatch and Stephen Millward think the mistress-hired hand theme is central (with Miss Fanny as the mistress who sent the narrator on the errand), and that it reoccurs in "Unfaithful Servant" from the second album.  If you want to get really heavy (and you have majored in American Literature) you can even say that the narrator fits into the classic myth of the American Adam, the innocent abroad, the seeker with eyes wide open walking into situations of threat and confusion. Greil Marcus has convincingly followed this theme through the first three Band albums.  I feel myself that the load is something deeper and darker and more unnameable than the responsibility of bearing a message. You don't have to see anyone else's pictures, but all the levels can co-exist. Robbie has said forcibly that he doesn't believe in putting lyrics on the sleeve:
So we should expect that the lyrics should remain enigmatic. Robbie broke his rule on Cahoots, where his worst ever lyrics got printed on the sleeve (Mind you, a lot of writers would give their right arms for Robbie's worst lyrics). I'm still not sure what 'I will fix your rack, if you'll take Jack my dog' is about ... and I don't really know if I want to know.
The Band's trademark of swopping lead on the vocals is here. In the original studio version, there are two voices for the narrator of the song - Levon does most of it (verses 1, 2, 3, 5), but Rick takes the fourth verse (Crazy Chester ...). Richard Manuel is taking the high, often wordless, part in the background. In later versions by The Band, it's certainly Richard preceding Levon as narrator on the third verse (Go Down Miss Moses ...) then still Rick on the fourth (Crazy Chester ... ). They were already doing it this way by the time of their first concert at Winterland in June 1969, and have stuck with it ever since (Randy Ciarlante replaces Richard Manuel's part in the 1990s line-up). With The Staples (Last Waltz), with Ringo Starr and by Robbie Robertson alone (Guitar Legends concert in Seville 1992), the song becomes a vehicle for turn-taking. I've never seen it as multiple narrators expressed by multiple voices, but rather different aspects of the same narrative voice. In solo concerts, Levon, Rick and Richard all did the whole song on their own. Robbie has done verses 1 and 5 in solo concerts. Instrumentally there were changes too. Garth played the piano on the studio version, but by the time they got back on the road Richard Manuel was taking the piano part and Garth was adding organ. In recent years, Garth adds an organ solo, or where it's too much hassle to set up his organ (e.g. Ringo Starr tour, The Letterman show) produces accordion instead. The detailed sleeve notes to The Complete Last Waltz bootleg say that Garth played piano, and Richard played organ on this version. If so, this was unusual. It's hard to tell. Also, Robbie moves from acoustic guitar (Big Pink, Woodstock), to electric guitar, which changes the whole underpinning of the song.
The lyrics shift as the years go by and further versions emerge - it's on every Band live album except Watkins Glen. If you listen to later live versions they're altering lines all the way through - 'Miss Carmen and the devil', 'Come on let's shake it downtown', 'won't you feed him when you want' (instead of 'can' which rhymes with 'man') and even Rick's 'won't you feed old Chester whenever you can' which makes even less sense than the original (Woodstock, 1969, The Complete Last Waltz, 1976). We also get a number of 'feed him' and a number of 'feed me' for the same line, but both are better than 'feed old Chester'. At Woodstock 1969 they even try call and response as Levon calls out 'What did he say?' answered by Rick 'He said, that's OK boy ... ' Adding words makes it easier to scan the lines. It was and is harder to do it in the 1968 version, but Robbie Robertson's broadcast solo versions are notably lyrically closer to the original.
It's interesting that Ronnie Hawkins saw Big Pink as
a return to country roots by The Band. Look at the roster of performers
who have covered The Weight. Aretha Franklin, The Supremes,
The Temptations, King Curtis, The Staples - none of those names
sound country, do they? Even so, the soul versions all introduced
a jangly mock-C&W guitar! The Weight is more complex
than R&B at the same time. It's only in recent years
that the song has been reclaimed by country artists. My favourite
version? The original 1968 cut, not that I haven't enjoyed
hearing all the changes.
Last word to Robbie, talking about the filming of the 1976 version of the song used in The Last Waltz, where The Band performed with The Staple Singers:
I liked everything they were saying because I had never thought of any of it, though I was brought up Catholic. I thought it was quite brilliant the credit they were giving me. For me it was a combination of Catholocism and gospel music. 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.' 
Appendix: Versions of "The Weight"
Copyright © Peter Viney 1996.