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The Weight

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Revised version, 2005
This version comes nearly ten years after the first version of my article in Jawbone magazine, and over those years I’ve had a steady drip of e-mails adding things, and correcting things. They accelerated when the use of ‘The Weight’ in a Cingular/ATT ad brought the song back into people’s consciousness in 2004/5. What was once an article by me has been expanded into a communal take on the song. Call it the “Remastered Expanded Version With Bonus Tracks”. Many thanks to all those who sent in their detailed views on the song. I’ve tried to include everyone’s point of view.

I’m interested in the pictures the song has painted for people over nearly forty years rather than precisely what Robbie Robertson meant when he wrote it. I’ve been told before that my interpretations were way off that intent, and I expect them to be. Any literary analyst crawling for a let-out when caught out in nonsense will point to the subconscious of the writer!

The lyrics are transcribed from the DVD-Audio version of Music From Big Pink, which has on screen lyrics and they differ slightly from those on the Band site, which were taken from the sheet music. I have followed the line breaks on the DVD-Audio. As the remastered DVD-Audio was done by Robbie Robertson, I assume that it is the definitive version.

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 contemporary 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 original 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:

Robbie Robertson:
I just wrote it. It’s just one of those things. I thought of a couple of words that led to a couple more, and the next thing I knew I wrote the song. That song was the only song on ‘Music From Big Pink’ that we never did rehearse. We just figured that it was a simple song, and when it came up we gave it a try and recorded it three or four times. We said that’s fine, maybe we’ll use it. We didn’t even know if we were going to use it, and it turned out to be the album.1
Robbie Robertson:
When I wrote ‘The Weight’, the first song for ‘Music From Big Pink’, it had a kind of American mythology I was reinventing using my connection to the universal language. The Nazareth in ‘The Weight’ was Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was a little off-handed - ‘I pulled into Nazareth’. Well I don’t know if the Nazareth that Jesus came from is the kind of place you pull into, but I do know that you pull into Nazareth, Pennsylvania! I’m experimenting with North American mythology. I didn’t mean to take sacred, precious things and turn them into humour.2
(On the album, The Weight closes side one, so Robertson must mean it was the first song written for Big Pink. )
Robbie Robertson:
(Buñuel) did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. People trying to be good in ‘Viridiana’ and ‘Nazarin’, people trying to do their thing. In ‘The Weight’ it’s the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn’t necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it’s impossible to be good. In ‘The Weight’ it was this very simple thing. Someone says, ‘Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say “hello” to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh? You’re going to Nazareth, that’s where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you’re there.’ This is what it’s all about. So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it’s like ‘Holy Shit, what’s this turned into? I’ve only come here to say “hello” for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.’ It was very Buñuelish to me at the time.
The Weight has been painting pictures for me for over thirty-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.4 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? 5). 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, as well as the folk song Wabash Cannonball, 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.6 Levon Helm maintains that everyone in the song was known to them.

Levon Helm:
The song was full of our favorite characters. ‘Luke’ was Jimmy Ray Paulman (of The Hawks). ‘Young Anna Lee’ was Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch. ‘Crazy Chester’ was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips … he was like Hopalong Cassidy and a friend of The Hawk’s. 7
This was confirmed by a website post from Arkansas:
Sheila from Fayetteville:
My father in law told me about Crazy Chester. Chester used to walk everywhere. He wore a cheap red dime-store cowboy hat and wore his britches legs tucked into his cowboy boots. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. It amazes me that I've been singing along with the lyrics of these songs for a long time and I'm just now learning that some of these people were right in my own backyard! The Band frequented the Iris Hotel, Tastee Freeze and the Rockwood Club here in Fayetteville. My mom in law was a waitress at the Rockwood and has met them all! Crazy Chester is from here too! Everyone here knows about him. WOW!

Robbie has acknowledged that characters in songs had their basis in people they’d met ‘along the road’, but crucially added in a TV interview, when asked if there really was a Chester and a Bessie, that “each character in a song could be a combination of more than one person8.” This is how most novelists work too.

Levon’s quote places Luke in the Wild West as well, albeit a fake Wild West. It doesn’t matter. Other people place the town in the post war Deep South:

Mike Chivers:
My own vision, is of a Post Civil war venue when everything is screwed up and scattered and the main character is trying to find shelter and make some sense of a world turned upside down. I considered the possibility that the verse about "Miss Moses" was a reference to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who returned south several times to lead slaves to freedom. "Old Luke" would be a slave not interested in being delivered from freedom other than by "the judgement day." Anna Lee would be a reference to his daughter or niece and Luke invites the main character (A white, possibly Rebel soldier) to stay and keep her "company" as an expression of his regard for the end of slavery and a lack of concern for retaining hatred against whites9.
The lyrics are impressionistic and will live with your picture as well as my picture and Mike’s picture and whatever Robbie’s picture and Levon’s pictures might have been.

Pulling into Nazareth

A Time magazine article in 1970 read the beginning of the song as a meeting between an Old Testament character and a 1970 rock musician10:

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. 11

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 Cripple Creek (whether the 1890s Colorado gold rush or the Appalachian folk festival) to Lake Charles, Louisiana watching Spike Jones on the box in the 1950s.

Clive James:
In a typical Robertson lyric, a century or so of chronological time is abruptly made to collapse between us and an event. Suddenly we are involved in it, hearing the contemporary voices, seeing things happen. And a crucial part of the strategy is that the event tends to remain uninterpreted: we might be given a dramatic interchange between two partially specified characters, or an unbroken monologue from some onlooker to an occurrence of which the details are clear but the pattern incomplete, and from this we try to sort out what is going on, unaided by any logical commentary.12

Take a load off Fanny

This chorus is so incredibly well-known, yet readers of the earlier version have e-mailed me regularly saying ‘I thought it was Annie … because later there’s ‘What about Miss Anna Lee’. I had my Annie / Fanny doubts at first too. 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 frontal sense of the word ‘fanny’ rather than the American posterior 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 asured me that this was perfectly true, again tracing the explanation directly 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, as none of them ever betrayed a lack of a sense of humour. I’m interested that this particular story is so widespread, and yet 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 :
A burden of affliction, sin, responsibility etc; a thing which weighs down, opresses or impedes a person.

A material object or force which acts or is conceived as a weight, cog etc.

= DOSE slang, 20th century (dose= an infection with venereal disease)
So maybe a dose of clap is part of the weight, or more likely, a symbol of the weight. This was expanded by another internet post :
I always thought that "Fannie" might have come from the song that Levon always looked forward to singing during The Hawks wild years. He mentioned on the Conan O'Brien Show back in 1993 that his very favorite song to sing every night way back then was "Short Fat Fannie" It was also the song that he used to tease Cathy Evelyn (Smith) with. She mentioned that in her book "Chasing The Dragon" She said she would turn red and run away cause every time he sang it, he would look over at her and grin. Since "The Weight" was swamped with real-life folks and memories...13
Cathy Smith was an early close associate of The Hawks as well as a later associate of The Band going right up to The Last Waltz, and is mentioned in Levon Helm’s autobiography as the girl who helped them out of a drug bust:
Rick Danko:
So Levon spoke to this chick he was dating. Her name was Kathy and she was the most beautiful girl in Toronto… 16 years old when he met her, and she was a gorgeous, gorgeous lady. She looked beautiful and no one could resist her. Anyway, Levon explained the situation to her, and she kindly gave this cop who was trying to crucify us a blow job. Then she told him she was 14 years old. He was the chief witness against us, but this was some weird shit for him, and he disappeared, we never saw him again. In the end everyone else got off, and I received a year’s suspended sentence on probation.14
Rosalind’s comment got this reply:
Bill Munson:
I never found Cathy Smith’s Chasing The Dragon, but some pertinent bits of it are quoted in The Seahorse Motel chapter in Rock & Roll Toronto. The event, which was the sort of thing British Premiership footballers have gained recent notoriety for, involved three Band (or rather Hawks) members and resulted in the birth of “The Band baby” quoted elsewhere. According to the book, Richard (who it appears was not in fact responsible) stood up and offered to take the ‘load’- or consequences. In the light of Ros’s quote about “Short Fat Fannie” it does ring bells with the themes Robbie has stated that The Weight is about – sharing a load, guilt and ‘the impossibility of’ redemption and would make some sense of the chorus.15
I’ve never managed to find Cathy Smith’s book either, but for the prurient, here is the relevant passage as quoted in Rock and Roll Toronto.
Cathy Smith, from Rock and Roll Toronto:
“One night a few months after I met them, they rented a few rooms in the Seahorse Motel down on the lakeshore. We partied on into the night, and at one point I ended up in bed with Rick Danko, In the middle of making love, Rick found out I wasn’t on the pill and things (as it were) ground to a halt. He got out of bed and wandered on down the hall, leaving me lying there hurt and confused, then Levon walked into the room, climbed into bed with me.” Six weeks later, Smith discovered she was pregnant. Levon was the father, she insists, although she also says that she ‘didn’t belong particularly to Levon’. Richard Manuel offered to marry her, but she turned him down.16
In all the correspondence I got since writing The Weight article years and years ago, Rosalind is the first to point out the Cathy Smith connection, and it covers the shared load theme without necessarily dismissing the clap reference either. Going back too her involvement in the drug bust, a weight is also slang for a kilo (or is it a pound) of dope. Again, the idea of a shared responsibility emerges – they were all busted for an offence that was eventually pinned on just one of them.
And what's all this "take a load off Fanny" riff? The whole thing becomes only a little less cryptic when we learn, in the very last lines, that the pilgrim is traveling under instructions, has, in fact, been sent by the mysterious Miss Fanny. The "weight" of the title is the load of her obligations the pilgrim has been sent to discharge. The irony, of course, is that he leaves with a heavier load than the one he brought with him - "my bag is sinkin' low."17
A more inocuous meaning came from B Molson:
Robbie Robertson had a knack for incorporating common sayings into his songs. I assume it means is a shorter way of saying, "lets take a load off my feet and put it on my fanny"
But if it’s a common saying, it’s managed to escape me. A further reading from far left field:
Joab Jackson:
As you might know, The word "fanny" is also slang for "butt" or, to be blunt,"a**hole." So, "Take a load off, Fanny" can be read as a very euphemistic way of saying "thanks a lot, a**hole." In each of the verses, the narrator is thwarted by some other character. Someone refuses him lodging. A friend leaves him with the devil, he must take care of a child and a dog. In each case, the narrator is dumped on by someone else. In effect, in each verse, some one else has taken a load off themselves and put it on the narrator. The final verse (and here is where I am stretching the most) is about, and I will be blunt here as well, a fart. It is the perfect response to dealing with a "Fanny": "Miss Fanny ... sent me here with regards to everyone."
I don’t get that one at all, but then again a lot of correspondents don’t get my pictures. The Hawks had been to England. They knew fanny meant the other end, or what Dawn French calls ‘the front bottom’.

Carmen and the Devil

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 my friend can stick around."

Verse two still has the traveller looking for a place to sleep … or more ominously to hide. Robertson brings in the temptress, Carmen. The choice of a Hispanic name is a further push to a Western setting for me, as well as conjuring up the operatic figure (with a knife at the ready). Whether the Devil is the real Devil at her shoulder symbolizing the temptations of the flesh (echoing the chorus interpretation), or whether Carmen’s companion is so stunning that she out-tempts the temptress is in question. It’s a great image, and if it’s the devil in Robert Johnson terms, he / she’s sticking around. In most versions, that is. While the lyrics in all transcriptions have My friend can stick around, later live versions appear to drift into my friend just stick around.

Mike Chivers (Civil war theme):
The verse about Carmen seems to be about a prostitute but the reference to her going means she is mending her ways altho' given the reference to "her friend sticking around" implies that the real trouble (Reconstruction) will be around for a long time.
An interpretation I hadn’t seen was this one, where ‘the devil’ means that Carmen’s friend is hugely unattractive.
He knows Carmen's not gonna go downtown, and he knows he's gonna get stuck with the friend, and he knows it's all going to hell, and you can hear it in his voice.
It’s rather like the two boys in a dance hall looking at two unknown girls on the far side of the room, and one says ‘Mine’s alright, but I don’t fancy yours.’

Go Down Moses

Go down, Miss Moses,
there's nothin' you can say
It's just ol' Luke,
and Luke's waitin' on the Judgement Day.
"Well, Luke, my friend,
what about young Anna Lee?"
He said, "Do me a favor, son,
won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company?"

The same Canadian ‘clap’ source for the load thought that verse 3 was about a bordello (Go Down Miss Moses … there’s nothing you can say …). If you follow the Cathy Smith version of Fanny, then the story of her going down on the set-up law officer above gives a potential inside joke to Go Down Miss Moses. Most Robertson lyrics are complex, and simplistic interpretations along American Pie lines (The Marching Band = The Beatles, The Jester = Dylan etc) will nearly always be misguided. To repeat his statement, most characters are based on more than one person.

‘Go Down Moses’ is a classic Negro spiritual, and Len Adams kindly sent me the full lyrics as well as a recording. The chorus goes:

Go down, Moses / Way down in Egypt's Land
Tell ol' Pharoah / Let my people go.18

‘Go Down Moses’ gave the title to a short story by William Faulkner, which in a 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 in the song are like characters from a story by William Faulkner or Carson McCullers19.

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:
Sold him in Egypt and now he dead.’
Oh, yes, Lord. Sold him in Egypt …’
… ‘Sold him to Pharoah
And now he dead.’20
This semi-gospel song has a wordless soprano running behind it, then. (Richard Manuel’s part in The Weight?). 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.21 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 could 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 Joseph who was sold into captivity.

But Luke, according to the Levon quote above, referred to Jimmy Ray Paulman of the early Hawks, who it is said was not known for his speed of reaction or movement, which figures with waiting for the judgement day. Anna Lee is supposed to be another character based on a known original from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Some feel that Anna Lee is the irresistible temptress who was walking along with Carmen – remember Rick Danko’s line from Levon Helm’s book No one could resist her. By the time they got to the 1970 tour filmed in Festival Express (and finally released in 2004), Levon had added Miss to keep Miss Anna Lee company and even switched young Anna Lee to old Anna Lee in the previous line. But even the most gorgeous get older!

I will fix your rack …

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

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’. Both of those figure. Some commentators swear that The Weight was all about dope dealing (assuming the literal and mundane sense of ‘a weight’ and interpreting ‘fix your rack’ as ‘fix your pain … by giving you a fix’).

I can hear this as a song with drug connections; I hear an echo of, "you're the one - who called on them, to call on me, to get you your favors done" from "This Wheel's on Fire." And that song always recalls "Nothing Was Delivered," which I've never been able to hear but as the remonstrance of an out-of-pocket customer to his large-talking dealer. Delivered with perfect courtesy, as is the veiled threat of "Wheel." I think this interpretation is a little too narrow, though.

Pondering the weighty matters of obligations and favors done, I was reminded of the passage in Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire where he speaks of the network of Toronto pros and semi-pros that protected The Hawks when things got complicated. Woodstock has been noted for protecting its artists, too. The rowdy fellas up in the hills - 'the band' - must also have benefited from their association with the Dylan/Grossman axis, in Woodstock and beyond. The Band moved in circles where favors done and obligations incurred were legal tender. On a bad day in a world like that, the weight can get heavy.22

This is a major point, and it goes way back. Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks had been managed by Morris Levy, a well-known Mafia associate, who even had the songwriter character in The Sopranos based on him. Levy or his girlfriend ‘Magill’ appeared on many record sleeves as a songwriter, including most of Hawkins stuff. Not that he ever wrote anything. With Hawkins they’d played Jack Ruby’s club in Dallas. When Dylan recruited the Hawks they were playing the New Jersey shore. So they were well used to networks where ‘favours were done and obligations incurred’. This might also be why the reformed Band’s most effective track was Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City, set in exactly this milieu.

However, this line caused more correspondence than any other. The most popular interpretation is that a rack is a navy or army bunk, which were in racks.

Pete Rivard:
"Fix your rack" is nothing more or less than "set you up with a place to sleep." Rack is military parlance for bed, based on the "racked" beds or bunk beds used in barracks and on shipboard. In the late 60's, especially with the infusion of Vietnam era vets into the general population, the term was in common usage, at least in the States. Listen to the lyrics of the song. The narrator is looking for some shuteye all through verse 1 "...I just need to find a place where I can lay my head/Mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed..." The offer to "fix your rack" is to give the narrator a place to sleep, so long as he accepts the burden of taking responsibility for "jack, my dog".
By extension, a bunk in a Western bunkhouse could be a rack too, so that the offer is to find the bed and it makes the most sense to me. There is a contrary school of thought:
Dean Jackman:
I have been listening to the band since "Big Pink". My own mental vision of the parable 'The Weight" has included, under many different circumstances of set and setting, that of a hay rack. These Rube Goldberg-like contraptions are still used here in rural Montana for stacking hay and I have no doubt that they were used in the past in rural Ontario. Of course I have no idea what Robbie had in mind but I have never doubted that Crazy Chester was indeed going to "fix your rack" because due to their construction they do indeed require maintainence if not "fixin"
Except that there was no reason for a traveller to have a hay rack (or ‘hay rick’ in Britain.) Another rack was a gun rack:
Ingrid Spangler:
To me ‘fix your rack’ in that song always brought to mind a gun rack on a pick up truck, despite my mid 19th century setting for the rest of the song.
Jeremy D. Goodwin;
It's funny how different things jump out at different people. I have no trouble believing that Chester is "offering" to fix the narrator's gun rack. It is not really a genuine offer, and is just an excuse to receive a favor...a favor disguised as a trade. Remember the narrator's unheeded reply: "Wait a minute Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man". That is, I don't have a gun rack, I don't need one fixed. Chester ignores the response: his offer was not useful, and was not intended to be. Just take the dog, goodbye. Since (as you report) the "real life" Chester is purported to have gone around with toy guns in holsters, it seems that this offer might be in character.
Mike Chivers continues on the post Civil war theme:
Mike Chivers (Civil War theme):
The verse about Crazy Chester is about a shell shocked individual who knows he is losing it and alternately threatens to "fix your Rack" (knock your teeth out) if you take Jack my dog And immediately thereafter invites the hero to take the dog and "feed him when you can." Even in American slang, referring to one's set of teeth as a "rack" is an obscure expression but not entirely uncommon. "Fix” can also be taken to mean to cause someone an injury.
But what’s the dog got to do with any of it? If we’re intent on identification with known characters, remember that the Band’s dog, Hamlet, was around throughout recording. For the addiction interpreters, the dog that needs feeding is obvious. I tend to the theory that Chester is crazy anyway and that the story the traveller is in is becoming progressively more like dreamlike and this is the verse when the narrator is in full bizarre dream mode. It doesn’t have to make sense.
Both Peter Viney and Robbie Robertson speak of the song in terms of cinema, and Peter Viney calls it "an intensely visual song." And yet, beyond the narrator's feeling "half past dead," there is virtually no descriptive language. It's true that this leaves every listener free to conjure their own movie, but for me, the song seems less like a movie than like one of those disjointed, episodic dreams - or that head-bobbing, hallucinatory state that accompanies sleep deprivation. In fact, it reminds me very much of one's state of mind at the end of a thirty-hour Greyhound ride, stumbling off the bus in the middle of the night, a stranger in a strange land23. You might need your wits, but they don't seem to be working that well. You speak, and people reply, but they seem to be talking about something else. Add this stuff about hiding, and a cameo appearance by the devil, and the trip takes on a decidedly nightmarish aspect.

Catch a Cannonball

Catch a cannon ball now
to 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.

The transcriptions all have cannon ball as two words which ,makes no sense to me. It must be Cannonball as in the song and train name The Wabash Cannonball. I’ll put that down to bad transcription. If you subscribe to it all being about people they knew and real incidents, even this line has possibilities. The Wabash Cannonball is an Americana song 24 which graced album after album by the ‘strummers’ as The Hawks called the folkies they looked down on … that is until they met Dylan. Catching the Cannonball could be getting on board the Dylan / folk band wagon (!) or getting back to the music and out of the bizzare world the narrator’s landed in.

Utah Phillips:
In the 1880's the Wabash Cannonball was a mythological train made up by some bum somewhere, the train any old hobo would ride on the way to his reward, wherever that might be. There never was a train called the Wabash Cannonball that went from the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore. And there never was a train where a bum could get breakfast on the club car. As the song got more popular, the Wabash system in the Midwest thought it was the smart thing to do to name its express run the Wabash Cannonball. It ran between Detroit and St. Louis until about three years ago. Norfolk & Western bought the Wabash system about six years ago and ran it right into the ground.
Utah Phillips touches on American mythology, an established Robertson obsession, and for me that nails the reference solidly to a train.

On the other hand, some posters noted the old Canadian TV series about truckers, Cannonball, which harks back to the Gunsmoke reference, and that would have our narrator hitching a ride.

Jan Haust:
There are some possible Canadian cultural references that, being English, you may not be aware of in reference to The Weight. During the early to mid sixties, there was a program aired for young Canadians just after school. It was half an hour in length and filmed in black & white. The story was about two truckers and their various exploits on the lonely Canadian highways. Ours is quite a large country with few people... fewer then. Travel and loneliness on our highways, railroads and jetplanes surface as themes in many of our singers' songs from this era. At any rate the two truckers' names were Mike and Cannonball. Mike was the younger less experienced one while Cannonball was of the older, wiser variety. There was even a theme song for the program...the program itself was entitled CANNONBALL. There were constant adventures as they drove their ‘loads’ back and forth between cities ( much like the Hawks roaring back'n forth from Ontario to Arkansas to Oklahoma and back...) Is it possible that the weight of Cannonball's load at the weigh station along the highway was a constant worry while he thought of loved ones back home and looked for a night's lodging along the way?25
I never thought of a train, either incoming or outgoing. "I pulled into Nazareth" suggests driving, with Greyhound or hitchhiking less likely candidates (although I have heard of the thumb being used to "pull" a ride). (And what a great opening line for a song! The juxtaposition of the homely and the holy catches the ear, and hooks the attention.) "The Cannonball" says "train," "A cannonball" doesn't. I always heard it as invented jive talk ("I'm gonna catch a cannonball outta here!") with a violent edge. This wheel shall explode. I'd forgotten about the trucker TV show, I can barely recall it.
Personally, I can’t see that the definite / indefinite article makes that much difference, but I’m assuming various trains called ‘Cannonball. Maybe there was only ever one.

Then Dave Marsh talks about ‘Luke with his bag sinking low’ which has got to be a misinterpretation. 26 A couple of the e-mails I received were sure that this line was about ballsache, perhaps after unrequited encounters with Carmen, her friend and Anna Lee. For example:

There's nothing in the text that requires the reading, but I (or the eternal internal adolescent) hear a double entendre in "my bag is sinking low." "Bag" is recognized as slang for "scrotum," and (again in military company) I've heard the phrase "bag drag" used to describe an exhausting experience, say a long forced march.
OK, but they could easily have sung ‘My bags are …’ and they clearly sang, ‘My bag is …’ so I’ll go simply for the bag he picked up in verse two.

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.27 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 Adamic theme through the first three Band albums.28 I feel myself that the load is something deeper and darker and more unnameable than the responsibility of bearing a message.

We again return to the question of how much an artist operates at the concious level, and Todd Durand e-mailed me some thoughts and word associations related to the song in 1998.

Todd Durand:
I believe that Robbie’s comments regarding the "...guilt of relationships," "...stumbling through life,""trying to do what's right," make up the essence of the song. Moreover, I believe it is one's ego and the difficulty of actually having to share one's self to another is more to the point of his lyrical intent. In the end of the song the writer appears to come to understand this. I support this by noticing the interest Mr. Robertson expresses in "words."I think he means "definitions."
  1. HEAD: mental or emotional control, culminating point of action
  2. BED: supporting surface or structure, foundation (see LOAD), and,interestingly, earthwork supporting a railroad (see CANNON BALL).
  3. BAG: something one likes or does well, a way of life
  4. HIDE: why is he wanting to hide? He was looking for a place to sleep? I think not, and I think this supports the concepts alluded to in the definitions above.
  5. CARMEN AND THE DEVIL: "... my friend can stick around," great lyric and I think it has something to do with the notion that he was attempting to stray from his true love and for this he is stuck with the devil. TEMPTATION
  6. LOAD: burdensome responsibility, to weight with factors influencing outcomes. The latter being quite important. A relationship can be quite burdensome to "a peaceful man."
  7. FOG: state of bewilderment or confusion.
  8. RACK: under great mental or emotional stress.
  9. JACK: servant, raise level or quality of.
  10. DOG: to worry, to hound, a worthless person
See a common theme threaded throughout this tale? It seems to me that the LOAD is the giving-up of ones self to a relationship, the weight of which scares the individual away into a sort of purgatory where all sorts of dreamlike visions lead to the discovery that it becomes all-important " get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one." His "... bag (way of life before having to share it with another) is sinking low, and I do believe it's time." In fact, in light of this realization, it is not only time to return, it's time to "...Catch a cannon ball now, t'take me on down the line." He wants to return with a newfound soul and a new definition of his "bag." And he wants to be sure to pass along Miss Fanny's "...regards for everyone." Her "thank-you."29
In the end, 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:
Robbie Robertson:
I hate having (lyrics on albums) now. I say ‘Is my diction so bad?’ People piss and moan about it, but I don’t like it. When I read other people’s lyrics on their sleeves I think they look stupid. If I read the lyrics to some of my favourite songs, they don’t mean shit to me. But if I hear ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, it is so powerful and emotional. All I want out of any of these songs is the right emotion. I don’t give a shit what the lyrics are. Dylan rambled on way too much for my liking. I remember years ago saying to him: ‘listen to ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’; I like this more than any of the songs we’re playing. This is emotional to me; our songs are clever. I don’t care for clever. Let’s try and get somewhere that has an emotional thing.30
Robbie Robertson:
I have a funny attitude to words though. I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll music and there were no words on the back of the album. I learned the words to all of Little Richard’s songs the best I could, and what I couldn’t figure out didn’t matter. 31
Greil Marcus:
When the music (on Big Pink) is most exciting - when the guitar is fighting for space in the clatter while voices yelp and wail as one man finishes another man’s line or spins it off in a new direction - the lyrics are blind baggage and they emerge only in snatches. This is the finest rock ‘n’ roll tradition.32
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 ever want to know.

The Music

The Weight was recorded at A&R Studios, New York in sessions starting on 10th January 1968. It was one of six songs recorded, like Sergeant Pepper, on four track, while the rest of the album was done on eight track in Los Angeles. It’s also Levon Helm’s only lead vocal on Music From Big Pink, reflecting that he had missed most of the basement gestation of the album, having returned only in the late Fall of 1967, after leaving The Hawks in Washington DC in November 1965. The song was a comparatively late addition to the album too.
Kevin Ransom:
I always thought "The Weight" was The Band's most stirring, most beautifully-constructed song--but I understand it was on the "B" list during the Big Pink sessions.
Robbie Robertson:
That's true, it was. We'd tried it a number of different ways, but we weren't that excited about it. So our attitude was, "Well, just in case something else isn't working, we've got this song to fall back on." So we were in the studio, and just out of trying to not be boring, we said, "Well, let's give that `Take a load off Fanny' song a shot." And very quickly, someone suggested that maybe Garth should play piano and Richard should play organ, because it seemed like there was room for some fills that would sound more natural coming from the piano than the guitar. So they swapped, and we recorded it, and it wasn't until we listened back to it that we realized, "Holy shit, this song's really got something.33
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 …), and joins Levon on parts of the fifth. Richard Manuel is taking the high, often wordless, part in the background.
Robbie Robertson:
I didn’t want screaming vocals. I wanted sensitive vocals where you can hear the breathing and other voices coming in. This whole thing of discovering the voices – don’t everybody come in together. Everybody on records was working on getting all the voices together until it neutralizes itself. I like voices coming in one at a time, in a chain reaction kind of thing like the Staple Singers did. But, because we were all men, it will have a different effect. All these ideas came to the surface and what becomes the clear picture is that this isn’t just clever. This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make.34
In later versions by The Band, we get Richard preceding Levon as narrator on the third verse (Go Down Miss Moses …) then still Rick on the fourth (Crazy Chester …). Randy Ciarlante replaced Richard Manuel’s part in the 1990s line-up. With The Staples (Last Waltz), with Ringo Starr and ther All-Star Band (featuring Rick Danko and Levon Helm) 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 have all done the whole song on their own. Robbie has done verses 1 and 5 in solo concerts. Rick, irritatingly, tended to do it as an audience singalong accompanied by stacatto rhythm guitar, except for the rare Deadheads Tribute to Jerry Garcia concert from Japan. There he was backed by a full band and dropped the guitar after a couple of lines and took it on, looking surprisingly like Ronnie Hawkins. Garth has performed it with Maud Hudson singing in 2004, and used a pastiche of the guitar intro on The Breakers from The Sea to the North. He also performed it on tour with Burrito DeLuxe in 2004.

Instrumentally there were changes too. Garth played the piano on the studio version, and on the road Richard Manuel was adding an organ part and Garth was still playing piano. This is what was happening on their first recorded live version, the Woodstock outtake which finally appeared on Woodstock Diaries and it was what they were still doing in 1976 at The Last Waltz. But sometimes they didn’t bother to switch seats. At Festival Express, filmed in July 1970, Garth is doing his lead part on organ, with Richard filling on piano. Given the hassle of operating PA systems in that era, plus the pressures of a show with many different groups, it may have been expediency. However, they’d been on the road consistently and they were playing it faster and louder, so the switch may have been for that reason.

In the 1990s reformed Band, Richard Bell took over on piano and Garth adds an organ solo, or where it’s too much hassle to set up his organ (e.g. Ringo Starr tour guest spot, The Letterman show) produces accordion instead.

Robbie moved from acoustic guitar (Big Pink, Woodstock ), to electric guitar (Festival Express, The Last Waltz), which changed the whole underpinning of the song, and for the worse, I think.

Does it scan?

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 (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 …’ In Festival Express, Levon introduces the chorus with extra words: And won’t you take … / And you can take … while on Woodstock 69 we get I want you to take …

Adding words makes it easier to scan the lines, and both Levon and Rick seem to have sung easier by padding out 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.

But the song is theirs to do as they wish with, and after hundreds of performances, I can’t believe any musician is analyzing the lyrics closely, if they ever did in the first place. Remember what Richard Manuel said about Tears of Rage:

Richard Manuel:
(Dylan) came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper - and it was typed out - in line form - and he just said ‘Have you got any music for this?’ I had a couple of musical movements that fit, that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean Bob? Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse.’35
I would think the same held true for The Weight, and once it was recorded and stuck in the mind, freely adapting the lyrics a little was natural.

So who wrote it?

The feud between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm revolves around credits and money. Helm says that he never gets paid for uses of The Weight, and that it was written communally in a woodshed atmosphere. Granted, drummers agree that Helm’s drums on the track are one of the greatest pieces of rock drumming committed to tape.36 Hudson’s piano is majestic. Danko’s bass burbles through the song and propels it. But sadly, all these great things are ‘arrangement’ in songwriting terms. Copyright consists of the lyric and the top line (basic melody). Therefore, other versions of the song by Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin which dispense with all of the wonderful Band communal arrangement are still recognizably The Weight. So what it says on the label, Jaime Robbie Robertson, is the legal fact of the matter. Whether it’s fair or not is another question. As Robbie has said, arrangement in bringing their parts to the mix are what musicians do. What songwriters do precedes that. And gets paid better.
John Simon:
Robbie was fair based on an old system … That's the system under which Robbie determined that he would be songwriter of those songs. And its true, Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players. Okay. But in the new system you'll see that when a song is written its a much more co-operative thing in a band. You'll see five or six writers on a song that'll say, on a band song on an album, it'll list everybody who's in the band on the song, you know. And you know that, or you may suspect that the bass player and the drummer or somebody - the keyboard player, one of them just had nothing to do with the song. But they're on it because its a sort of democracy and they just happend to be around … So, Robbie was working in the old system. And he's absolutely right in working with the old system. Levon is pissed about that and wishes that Robbie had been working in the new system. But if they hadn't agreed on that ahead of time, you know … on the other hand a good deal of the inspiration on the songs that Robbie wrote came from Levon's personal experience.37
We can also discount the late sixties rumours that Dylan had a hand in it. They arose because it was published through Dylan’s company, Dwarf Music, as were the other songs on Music From Big Pink. In 1968 people couldn’t believe that such mature songwriting had appeared seemingly from nowhere and cast around for other involvement. By the next album the world was aware of Robertson’s abilities and the rumours died.

The last word …

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 like to introduce 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:

Robbie Robertson:
The biggest thing was the religious connotation of the song. I remember there was this huge argument between Marty (Martin Scorsese, the director) and Michael Chapman about the mood and the lighting for ‘The Weight’. Marty was insistiting that it was a very Catholic vision, it had to be. And Michael was saying ‘No, this is a very Protestant story, it’s Baptist, Marty.’ He was explaining to Marty the gospel music connotations.

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.’38


Critical ratings of Music from Big Pink

Rolling Stone: * * * * *
Rolling Stone 1992: * * * *
Rolling Stone 2004: * * * * *
Q: * * * * *
Q (1998): * * * *
Q (2000): * * * * *
Uncut: * * * * *
Gambacinni 100 1987: 64
R.S. top 100: 41
GUINNESS 1000: 163
VIRGIN 1000 (1998): 258
MOJO Readers 100 ALBUMS: 98
Mojo Readers 100 SINGLES: 65
Rolling Stone 500 2003: #34

Official Versions by The Band and its members: Albums

Original studio version 1968
The Band: Music From Big Pink, Capitol, 1968
Remastered version, Capitol 2000 Chart US#30, single UK #21

DVD-Audio version of the original, with new DTS 5.1 surround mix by Robertson, 2002
If you have a 5.1. system invest in the DVD-Audio, and make sure you switch the audio setup to DTS, which is a bit cumbersome to do (it has an appalling menu), but worth it. I forgot how really bizarre the spaces in the music seemed when it first came out. This was such a seriously different album then, and years of listening to the stereo have blunted the novelty. The subtle shifting of the spaces on the DVD-A brings back that initial impact again, hearing Garth surging right along the left side of the room rather than on the left front speaker, Rick and Levon locked together on the right – not as usual for drums and bass in the centre. The voices in the middle of the room but all spatially seperated – somehow the novelty of 1968 is restored after years of familiarity.

Live, Woodstock Festival, 17 August 1969
Woodstock Diary, Atlantic 1994
Woodstock: The 25th Anniversary Collection, 4 CD set, Atlantic 1994
DVD release, 2004
The Weight is the earliest live recording and it’s all here. You might find the audience clapping along irritating, and various bits of call and response (Where? Where’s that? What do they say?) were quickly dropped from subsequent performances. You can hear Robbie’s voice on the chorus quite a lot too (read Levon’s autobiography - he says that Robbie’s open mic marred the set, which is harsh on this evidence).

Live, Academy of Music, New York, New Years’ Eve, 1971
The Band: Rock of Ages, Capitol, 1972
Chart, US#6
Plus: Allen Toussaint - arranged the horns / Snooky Young - trumpet, flugelhorn / Howard Johnson - baritone sax, tuba, euphonium / Joe Farrell - tenor and soprano saxes & English horn / Earl McIntyre - trombone / J.D. Parron - alto sax and e flat clarinet

Live, Los Angeles, 1974
Bob Dylan & The Band: Before The Flood, Asylum 1974
Chart: US #3, UK #8

Live, The Last Waltz, San Francisco, November 1976
The Band: The Last Waltz 4 CD Box Set, 2002
Unissued on the original album or film, where the version with The Staples replaced it. This has more prominent guitar than earlier versions.

Studio, 1977 with The Staple Singers
Recorded after the concert for inclusion in The Last Waltz Suite on side 6 of the set. Mavis Staples and Pops Staples take verses.
The Band: The Last Waltz, Warner Brothers, 1978 3 LP / 2 CD set
Chart: US #16, UK # 39

Live, Greek Theater, Los Angeles, 1989, Ringo Starr & His All Star Band
Features both Levon Helm and Rick Danko, as well as Billy Preston who briefly joined The Band in 1990. As Garth sidles on uncredited to play accordion, this is as near a Band version as you got for the era. Dr John takes the extra verse.
Ringo Starr & His All Star Band, Rykodisc, 1990

Live, Massey Hall, Toronto, January 1995
The Band perform a three song set at this concert
Ronnie Hawkins: Let it Rock - The 60th Birthday Celebration, Canadian 2 CD set, Quality, 1995

Rick Danko, live broadcast, Bring It On Home, sometime between 1988 and 1992
Various Artists: Bring It On Home Volume 2, Sony Legacy, 1994

Official versions by The Band and its members: Videos/DVDs

Live, Woodstock Festival, 1969
Woodstock - The Lost Performances, Warner 1991
The Spirit of Woodstock, Warner 1994
The Band: The Authorized Video Biography, Laser Disc, 1995
Woodstock Diaries, DVD, 2004
The version is quieter, slower than later live ones, with Robbie on acoustic guitar (and skullcap). It backs up Robertson’s claim that their original tapes sounded better than anyone else at Woodstock. They foolishly declined to appear in the movie.

Live, Festival Express Tour, July 1970
Theatrical, then DVD release, 2004
In the film’s narrative the Band’s three contributions appear to be from Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, making this middle one Winnipeg. But as they’re wearing the same clothes in each sequence, they are all obviously from one concert, which could be any of them, but the smart money’s on Toronto. After a period on the road playing big concerts shows, this is harder, rockier, slightly faster and both Robbie and Garth have gone electric.

Studio, 1977 with The Staple Singers
Recorded after the concert
The Last Waltz, Warner Home Video, 1984, DVD, 2002
When the Band’s original version from Winterland surfaced, first on bootleg and finally on the Paul Allen-financed 4 CD box set, it became clear why they felt the need to re-do their most anthemic song. The original is good, but for the occasion, it needed to be fantastic, which The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down was. Robbie has so often talked about The Staples as a major influence, especially on this song, and like the song itself this final performance by the original quintet blended black and white people to do a song that blended black and white musical traditions. Many see this as the best version.

Live, Vancouver, 1983 with The Cate Bros Band
The Band is Back, Videoform, UK, 1984, PAL
The Reunion Concert, Video, Laser Disc, NTSC only
Australian DVD, 2002
The reformed Band. Earl Cate does a passable, more mellow imitation of Robbie’s guitar fills. It’s obvious that they feel the need for an extra drummer, bass player, guitarist and keyboard player to stop them over-exerting themselves, and the Cate Bros. Band fill these roles competently. Presumably they had to take all four Cates when all they really needed were two. Overcrowded stage, and overcrowded arrangements.

Live, Tokyo, September 1983 with The Cate Bros Band
Japan Tour, Japanese only video, laser disc, release, NTSC
22 track set recorded on 2 September 1983 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Kosenenkin Kaikan. This date is from the same tour as The Band: Reunion Concert (or The Band is Back ) above, sharing the same line up with the Cate Bros. Band, though the video emerged much later, and then only in the Japanese market. However, this set is longer and contains three previously unreleased songs: Richard Manuel on You Don’t Know Me (at last) as well as Voodoo Music and Caldonia. The set is familiar, and this is the unedited version of a very similar show. I hate to say it when a tape is hard to get, but the picture, performance and sound quality are better than the Vancouver concert. Garth was subdued and mixed way back for much of The Reunion Concert, whereas here he shines.

Live, Greek Theater, Los Angeles, 1989, Ringo Starr & His All Star Band
Ringo Starr & His All Star Band: Video Collection, 1990

Live, New Orleans, April, 1994
The Band: The New Orleans Jazz Festival, Laser Disc, Pioneer, 1995, DVD, Pioneer 1998
The sloppiness that allowed It Makes No Difference to be listed as The Sun Don’t Shine Anymore on the track listing is unforgivable for an official US release. Not only that, but two years later the mistake was repeated on the DVD release. The sound quality makes it far and away the best record of the 1994 tour, but the cameras do seem to restrain them compared to some collectors’ tape of the same tour. The DVD has a 5:1 mix added.

Live, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1994
Levon Helm declined to attend The Band’s induction. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson are joined by Eric Clapton on guitar and vocal. The release does not include a full version, but does include snatches of the rehearsal.
Robbie Robertson: From The Band to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Laser Disc, NTSC, 1994
Robbie Robertson: Chronicle, Laser Disc, 1995

Live, Toronto, January 1995
The Band perform a three song set at this concert
Ronnie Hawkins: Let it Rock - The Rock & Roll Video of The Decade, Quality, 1995. Canadian, NTSC only

Live at Loreley, 23 June 1996
DVD, Sanctuary 2001
The Band in a weak performance, near the end of their touring days. Rick Danko is in poor health and poorer form, and this is the Levon Helm Show. The version of The Weight is probably the best song they played on a bad day.

Studio. Classic Albums ‘The Band’
Confusingly it opens this documentary on the subsequent album.
Video, 1997
Laser Disc 1998
DVD, 2001, 2005

Levon Helm, live, Ryman Auditorium, 1995
Red, Hot + Country, video 1995
Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Radney Foster & Mark Collie. John Hiatt sings verse 3, while Radney Foster and Mark Collie take alternate lines on verse 4.

Rick Danko. Live. The Deadheads Festival, Japan 1997
Japanese Laser Disc, deleted. With full backing.

Snatches of the bass and drum parts appear in the tuition videos:

Rick Danko’s Electric Bass Techniques
Homespun, 1987

Levon Helm On Drums and Drumming
Homespun, 1992

Bootleg Versions / Radio CDs

Live, Winterland, San Francisco, 18 April 1969
CD. Short set, poorly recorded, notable for the inclusion of Levon’s dad’s song ‘Little Birdies’

Live at Woodstock, 17 August 1969
Bootleg CD. Excellent 2003 remaster

Live, Isle of Wight Festival, 31 August 1969
CD, Bob Dylan & The Band: Isle of Wight
Missing from earlier boots which only had Dylan’s set with The Band. Later CDs include the Band’s set.

Live, The Hollywood Bowl, July 1970
LP, Live At The Hollywood Bowl, 1970
CD, Real Old Time
CD, Live At The Hollywood Bowl 1970, Italian

Live, Royal Albert Hall 2nd June 1971
CD, Royal Albert Rags

Live, Central Park, NYC, 30 June 1971
CD, Live in Central Park

Live, December 28-31 1971
CD Academy of Outtakes, Undoctored version of Rock of Ages show.

Live, Jersey City, 31 July 1973
CD, The Band: This Wheel’s On Fire, Luxemburg 1990
CD, The Band: Blue Highways, 1995

Live, Roosevelt Stadium, 1 August 1973
CD, Roosevelt Stadium, vastly better than the previous day’s post Watkins Glen show.

Live, Charlotte, North Carolina, January 1974 (Before The Flood Tour)
LP, Down South

Live, Madison Square Garden, New York City, January 1974 (Before The Flood tour)
CD, Before and After The Flood

Live, San Francisco, March 1975 (17)
This was a Neil Young charity show with Dylan guesting. Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ben Keith perform together. Lots of bootleg versions, mainly Italian CDs.
CD, Various Artists: The S.N.A.C.K Concert
CD, Various Artists: San Francisco Bay Blues
CD, Bob Dylan: The Prophet & The Clown
CD, Bob Dylan: San Francisco 1975
CD, Bob Dylan / Neil Young: Super Golden Radio Shows #27

Live, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, 25 August 1976
CD, Tears of Grief

Live, The Music Inn, Lennox 29 August 1976
CD, The Music Inn

Live, Washington DC, 16 August 1976 (18)
CD, The Band: Live in Washinton (sic) December 1976 (sic), Italian CD
CD, The Band: Ophelia - King Biscuit Flower Hour, German CD
CD, The Band: And The Band Played On … With Robbie Robertson
CD, The Band: Live USA
CD, King Biscuit Flower Hour, 1990 Radio CD
CD, King Biscuit Flower Hour, 1991 Radio CD
CD, King Biscuit Flower Hour, 1993 Radio CD

Live, The Palladium, NYC, 18 September 1976
CD, Take A Load for Free. Often hailed as better than The Last Waltz

Live, The Last Waltz, San Francisco, November 1976
This is the live version by The Band - official releases have the studio cut with The Staple Singers. Replaced by The Last Waltz official box set in 2002.
CD, The Complete Last Waltz, 4 CD set, Taiwan

Live, Woodstock 94, 1994 (20)
CD, The Band: Woodstock 94, Australian (title here is The Wait!)

Significant Unreleased Broadcast Versions

The Band: Live, Syria Mosque, Pittsburg, November 1970
Quite widely disseminated early live TV show (rebroadcast in 1990s)

Rick Danko: The Real Story, CMBC TV 1991
Rick’s solo version where the audience are expected to sing along to an instrumental

Robbie Robertson: Guitar Legends - Sevilla, Expo 92
Sung by Robbie Robertson, Ivan Neville, Bruce Hornsby, Monk Bordeaux. Robbie is incredibly nervous on the night, but the stellar backing band and guest vocalists pull him through.

Robbie Robertson: Saturday Night Live, 18 January 1992
Same band as Sevilla (+ G.E. Smith on mandolin)

The Band, CBC TV, Canada 3 December 1993
Introducing Randy Ciarlante on verse 3

The Band: Woodstock 94 TV broadcast
with Bruce Hornsby singing verse 2 (as with Robbie Robertson) and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) on second bass guitar.

The Band: The Letterman Show, January 1995
The Band with stunning accordion from Garth, plus Paul Shaeffer, Anton Fig

Selected Collectors' Tapes

The Band
Winterland, San Francisco, 19 April 1969
Isle of Wight Festival, 31 August 1969
Central Park, New York, 1 May 1970
Tufts University, 5 November 1970
Copenhagen, 27 May 1971
Royal Albert Hall, London, 3 June 1971
Rotterdam, 6 June 1971
Central Park, New York 30 June 1971
Central Park, New York 1 July 1971
Boston, 6 December 1971
Watkins Glen, 28 July 1973 (the song is not on the official CD, but much of that was not from Watkin’s Glen!)
New Jersey, 31 July 1973
Buffalo, 7 June 1974
Toronto, 1 September 1974
Wembley Stadium, London, 14 September 1974
San Francisco, 19 April 1975
Lennox, 18 July 1976
Los Angeles, 24 & 25 August 1976
Lennox, 29 August 1976
Toronto 31 August 1976
Philadelphia, 17 September 1976
New York, 18 September 1976
Central Park, New York 30 June 1971

The Band with The Cate Bros
(with four Cate Bros replacing one Robbie Robertson)
Numerous tapes from 1983 and 1984 tours (see the official videos)
Nostell Priory, England, 25 August 1984 (without Levon Helm)

The Band
(with Jim Weider replacing Robertson)
Stratford, Ontario 2 November 1985
Worcester, Mass 21 February 1986

The Band
(with Jim Weider and Fred Carter replacing Robertson and Manuel)
Dallas, 31 December 1986

The Band
(with Jim Weider, Stan Szeleste replacing Robertson and Manuel)
Santa Rosa, 14 November 1990

The Band
(with Jim Weider, Stan Szelste, Vassar Clements)
San Francisco, 20 September 1992

The Band - post-1993
(with Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante, Richard Bell)
Mountain Stage, 27 February 1994
Quatro Club, Tokyo 4 May 1994
Bergen, Norway 27 May 1994
Telluride, Colorado 19 June 1994
Kitchener, Ontario 25 March 1995
Richmond, Va 3 May 1995
Poughskeepie, 15 December 1995
Philadelphia, 3 February 1996
Carnegie Hall, New York, 29 March 1996
Dublin, 21 June 1996 (without Rick Danko)

Levon Helm & The Cate Bros
Toronto, November 1981
Toronto, 19 June 1986

Levon Helm, Russell Smith & The Muscle Shoals All Stars
San Jose, 26 April 1982

Levon Helm & Bob Dylan
Lone Star Café, New York 29 May 1988

Levon Helm & The Woodstock All Stars
Storrs, 1 November 1984
Woodstock, 16 February 1985

Helm & Hudson
Lennox, 3 July 1992

Rick Danko & Levon Helm
Berkely, 25 March 1983

Rick Danko
Roslyn, New York 15 December 1977
Lone Star Café, 21 December 1977
The Roxy, Los Angeles 1 March 1978 (with Levon, Richard & Garth)
New York, 7 May 1992
Philadelphia, 22 January 1993
London, England, 6 April 1993
New York, 3 November 1995
Pawling, 24 November 1995

Danko, Hudson, Manuel
Lone Star Café, New York 3 January 1985
Lone Star Café, New York 31 March 1985

Danko, Hudson & Friends
Toronto, 11 March 1988 (joined by Robbie Robertson)
Kuranda, Australia 5 June 1988

Richard Manuel
The Getaway, Woodstock, 7 December 1985

Robbie Robertson
Guitar Legends, Sevilla 1992

Significant Covers by Other Artists

Jackie De Shannon
US #55, August 1968, now on What the World Needs Now - The Definitive Collection

who rerecorded it for the US #6 Easy Rider soundtrack album

Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations
US #46, 1969 (on 1969 LP Together, now on I’m Gonna Make You Love Me , Spectrum CD 1993)

Aretha Franklin
US # 19, 1969, on This Girl's in Love with You LP

Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper
Live Adventures of Bloomfield & Kooper

Spooky Tooth
It’s All About Spooky Tooth / Best of …

Amen Corner
Farewell to the Real Magnificent Seven

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins in Concert

Paul Jones
Come into my Music Box

Odell Brown & The Organ-izers
US single, Cadet 1970 by co-writer of Sexual Healing

Giant Sand

The Ventures
Underground Fire, 1968

Kings Road
on 1973 Pickwick cheapo

Rotary Connection
Songs, 1969

Chuck Berry
unissued, 1974

Joe Cocker
4 CD set The Long Voyage Home

The Staple Singers
Soul Folk in Action LP 1968

The Staple Singers & Marty Stuart
Rhythm, Country & Blues album. Produced by Don Was, 1994

Isaac Guillory
Live, 1988

High Mountain Hoedown
High Mountain Hoedown, 1970

Hoyt Axton
Spin of the Wheel, 1990

Wendi Slaton
Turn Around & Look

Bobby Jameson

Jack Knife & The Sharps
Ace Cafe

Lewis Ross

Dave Kelly
Standing At The Crossroads, 1995

The Wallflowers
Jakob Dylan’s band - live versions

Dave Pegg & Friends
Birthday Party 1998

Love (sic), 1998

Shannon Curfman
Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions 1999

live on The Jools Holland Hootenany, BBC 30.12.99 , B-side of Coming Around Again single, 2000

Grateful Dead
live tapes 1992-96

Waylon Jennings
Live album, 2000

Bruce Hornsby
live bootlegs, from 1993

Jimmy Barnes
Flesh & Wood 1993

Reasons to Quit, 1999

Marva Wright
Marva, 2000

Cassandra Wilson
Belly of the Sun 2002

Joan Osborne

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol III 2002, hidden track

Gillian Welch & Friends
Superb TV performance, December 2004


  1. Rolling Stone 27 December 1969

  2. Interview in ‘Vox’ October 1991

  3. Interviewed by Rob Bowman, sleeve notes to ‘To Kingdom Come’.

  4. aka as Gun Law (26 minute episodes) or Marshall Dillon (1 hour episodes) in the UK and elsewhere.

  5. Over-interpretation? I’ve half-jokingly been pointing this out for years. After writing this, I saw the article ‘Brief Encounter: Dave Berger’ (The Telegraph, Autumn 1992). Berger says that ‘Marshall Dillon’ was his 1961 nickname for Bob Dylan.

  6. Crazy Chester tells the narrator, ‘I will fix your rack if you’ll take Jack my dog’. When The Band arrived in Woodstock they took over Dylan’s dog, Hamlet.

  7. Levon Helm / Stephen Davis, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’.

  8. From Canadian TV programme, Life and Times. Precised by ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ .

  9. e-mail, 14 February 1999

  10. Jay Cocks, Down to Old Dixie & Back, Time, 12 January 1970

  11. Lyric to ‘The Weight ‘©

  12. Clive James, Creem magazine, July 1972

  13. Posted by ‘Rosalind’, 15 December 2003, Book Faded Brown

  14. Quoted in Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire.’

  15. Bill Munson, on the internet 23 January 2004.

  16. John Goddard & Richard Crouse, ‘Rock & Roll Toronto’ (Doubleday, Canada, 1997) quoting Cathy Smith, ‘Chasing The Dragon’ (Key Porter, Toronto, 1984

  17. Essay e-mailed to me in November 2002.

  18. Len Adams gave me the reference from Exodus 8:1
    And the Lord spake unto Moses 'Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto
    him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

  19. Barney Hoskyns, ‘Across The Great Divide’

  20. William Faulkner, ‘Go Down Moses’ (1942)

  21. Michael Millgate, ‘William Faulkner’ Writers and Critics series, 1961

  22. I received a set of comments in November 2002, from SaDavid which I’ve quoted heavily.

  23. A line Robbie Robertson used in ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ in 1986

  24. The song predates the real train, but is based on the mythological one. There is a line about ‘travelin’ through the jungles’ in the song , meaning “hobo jungles” … which links us directly back to “Hobo Jungle” by The Band. It has been credited to Theodor Dreiser. David Powell writes: I believe the "The Wabash Cannonball" is actually one of those songs in public domain that has been passed down & adapted by various artists over the years. A.P. Carter is sometimes credited due to his arrangement for the Carter Family. Roy Acuff added some additional lyrics for his 1938 version. I think Theodore Dreiser is mistakenly credited due to the fact that his older brother, Paul Dresser (ne John Paul Dreiser, Jr.), wrote the song "On The Banks Of The Wabash".

  25. 25 Cannonball was a series of half-hour family dramas chronicling the adventures of two truckers who hauled freight on the highways of Canada and the U.S.A. Filmed around Toronto, Canada, the series was a joint Canadian/UK production. It aired in Canada on Mondays on the CBC network. I had seen it at the time, but forgotten it.

  26. Dave Marsh ‘The Heart & Soul Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ - The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made’ - in which ‘The Weight’ is number 616 - between 614 and 615 places too low.

  27. Hatch & Millward ‘From Blues To Rock- An Analytical History of Pop Music’ 1987

  28. Greil Marcus ‘Mystery Train’

  29. e-mail comments, 11 December 1998

  30. Vox magazine October 1991. Robbie has used much the same story several times, with Smokey Robinson or Curtis Mayfield (Rolling Stone 1991) replacing Percy Sledge.

  31. Rolling Stone 27 December 1969

  32. Greil Marcus ‘Mystery Train’

  33. Kevin Ransom interview, Guitar Player, May 1995. In full on the Band site.

  34. Quoted by Rob Bowman, sleeve notes to the remastered version, 2000.

  35. Interview in The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

  36. In the notes to the remastered version, Robbie says he told Levon how to tune the drums to get the effect. I felt this was too controversial a statement to dignify by putting it in the main body!

  37. Lee Gabites' interview with Big Pink producer, John Simon, 1999, on the Band website

  38. Quoted in ‘Martin Scorsese: a journey’ by Mary Pat Kelly, 1992.

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