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The Unfaithful Servant

[Peter Viney]  notes by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

As with several Band songs I had notes in incomplete form when Phil from California posted his question about this song in the guestbook. I've finished them off, but have been greatly informed by the debate between Pat Brennan and Ragtime Willie, which has caused me to amend a few ideas and to add a quote from Pat at the very last minute.
-- Peter Viney

The Unfaithful Servant (by Robbie Robertson)
Album: The Band (1969)

Rick Danko lead vocal. Robbie's solo is on acoustic guitar (but electric guitar on Rock of Ages) Richard is on piano. The mix is simple, piano all on one side, guitar all on the other, pulling the song into opposing sides. Horns: Garth - sax, trumpet, Rick - trombone, Richard - saxophone, John Simon - tuba. Robbie's trilling final guitar part became one of his trademarks in later years.

Rick Danko gets fewer lead vocals on the album than Richard or Levon, but his voice is an essential part of all the songs. This is one of Danko’s greatest vocal efforts, ranking up there with It Makes No Difference, though this one has been aired much less frequently on stage (it appears on Rock of Ages). Like Tears of Rage it doesn’t seem to fit the dynamics of the concert hall.

Randy Ciarlante
I’m a singer but I just try to fill the chord out - to get in there somewhere and make the blend happen because Rick Danko is really the hook when it comes to vocals. He’s an amazing guy for harmonies … he’s got a timbre in his voice that’s incredible.

John Simon
Rick is actually a very studied singer. He expresses it in a very unique way, but he really is concious of working with a microphone in an Appalachian tradition. I mean, he hears those old singers and knows how they do it.

Rick Danko
The Unfaithful Servant, believe it or not, was one of the few songs I’ve ever recorded in my life, where it was done in the very first take. That’s the one. We recorded it, and then I did it thirty more times. forty more times, and John Simon, I think, came in and said, ‘Listen to this Rick,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’ That was the first take.

John Simon
And on Unfaithful Servant you could really hear the horns. It’s one of the few solos on the record. I mean, it’s a duet, right toward the end there’s a horn duet and you could hear that moaning Band horn section sound. And people say , ‘How do you get that sound?’ Well, because that’s the only sound we could make.

Rob Bowman
Musicians might note the unusual chord progression; Robbie had discovered a new guitar tuning. These chords are the result. Robbie takes rare mini solos, acoustic on Unfaithful Servant electric on King Harvest . Both are marked by economy and understatement.

Barney Hoskyns (on the Rock of Ages version)
Robbie played with an unerring touch all night, crowning his performance with a guitar solo on Unfaithful Servant that must count among the ten greatest ever recorded. Never has the brittle, needling quality of the Fender telecaster sound been used to such devastating effect, or harmonics deployed to send such shivers down the spine.

Barney Hoskyns
If The Band as a ‘concept album’ can be said to take place in or around some imaginary country town, then The Unfaithful Servant is definitely set in the ‘mansion on the hill’, a Southern household of the kind Robbie had read about in the plays of Tennessee Williams. … the overall effect was pure American Gothic.

I’d never thought of The Band as a concept album (whether in Hoskyns inverted commas or not) nor that it took place in one imaginary town, but The Unfaithful Servant does conjure up the mansion, not necessarily on the hill, which is as much a feature of Faulkner as of Tennessee Williams. Williams’ plays had been made into films (e.g. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof ) and Robbie talks about his passion for the movies predating his passion for books at the age of 19 (Robbie mentions Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway as his reading matter in one interview and Tennessee Williams in another). Whatever, we all know this classic story setting, ‘The Big House’ which runs through American folklore from Faulkner through Gone With The Wind to more recent 1990s manifestations like the movie Driving Miss Daisy or John Berendt’s non-fiction novel Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil. It has been cited as a further Civil War period song, but there’s no internal evidence. Williams and Faulkner are 20th century manifestations that fit just as well. Melodically it harks back to Tears of Rage with a similar sense of nameless guilt in the lyrics. There is also a similarity with It Makes No Difference - similar in the way that say Elton John’s or Randy Newman’s songs are immediately recognizable as their compositions. There’s a lyric link too:

Makes no difference if we fade away … (The Unfaithful Servant)
It makes no difference, night or day,
The shadow never seems to fade away
(It Makes No Difference)

The spaces which The Band used between instruments was at its most evident. There’s the piano, and a loping, contemplative bass well separated from it, then right in your face is acoustic guitar. The blowsy horns (Levon’s apt description) are way back in the mix. They sweep mournfully in then disappear. Ralph Gleason’s original review likened it to jazz pianist Bill Evans.

Someone joked that Robertson probably wrote it as a disguised, curmodgeonly diatribe for their roadies (Levon describes some epic battles with various crew members). It was around the time of the album’s release that Ronnie Hawkin’s Rolling Stone article regaled the world with tales of whoring and excess on the road, a betrayal of confidence that Band members seemed to take deeply to heart - did you do it just for the spite, or just for the glory (though the song had already been recorded by then).

As in The Weight, there is a Mistress with a capital M, against whom some offence or sin has been committed. The servant has been given marching orders, with some reluctance and regret, but the offence … basically the betrayal of trust … is unforgivable. It’s true but unusual to talk of the place where Mistress and Servant lived as the home you shared. The voice that tells the tale is a third party at the beginning, but then seemingly shifts to a first person account (So long to a lady I have known) then back to third person.

Robbie Robertson made it clear that it IS about a servant and a mistress, so there’s no need to seek out parallel levels.

Robbie Robertson
To write a song about this kind of thing is not really a very righteous thing to do, because we’re at the point now where there should be no differences between people. Everybody is now interested in being the same, so I was kinda playing a game in writing this song.

The song is brilliant at generating assumptions. Let’s ask some questions. Try answering them without pondering too hard. I’ve used the word ‘screwing’ which has rather mechanical connotations, but some people are offended by Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, and ‘making love’ sounds like romantic fiction, and ‘having intercourse’ like a medical textbook. If you don’t like the term try not to let it get in the way.

Let your picture of the song bring out your answers, but do it quickly:

  • Where does it take place?
  • When does it take place?
  • Is the servant male or female?
  • Is there a sexual element in the relationship?
  • If so, is the servant screwing or being screwed? (i.e. the instigator or the recipient)
  • Is the relationship with the ‘lady’ or with the narrator?
  • Is the narrator a separate entity to the servant?
  • What’s the transgression?
I would think most people could give off the cuff answers. If I’d done it fast a while ago, without referring to the lyrics I’d have answered:
  • Rural area. Large house. Mansion with white portico, somewhere in the south.
  • Not recently. Train whistles are blowing. So post Civil War (probably). I’d think Faulkner. 1920s to 1940s.
  • Male (?)
  • Yes
  • Screwing
  • the lady
  • yes
  • The servant had a relationship and told tales, bringing shame.
Then look at the lyrics or give it a listen. This is what I come up with.
  • Absolutely no textual or musical evidence for the south. Try seeing a wooden Gothic mansion in rural New England. Or an isolated farmhouse in the west, with the hired hand being sent packing. It still works just as well. I think people tend to see it as the south because it leads so beautifully into King Harvest. It could also be that the blowsiness of the horns conjure up a steamy Southern atmosphere.
  • A writer using a modern setting might choose a Greyhound bus in preference to a train. Trains will take you back as far as the Civil War. I still think I’m right about the early 20th century. I’d dismiss the idea that it takes place very early on. It’s a servant who goes and packs and leaves. This rules out either a slave, or an indentured servant.
  • Zero evidence for a male servant either. Barney Hoskyns says ‘his mistress’ but the servant could be female. In which case the relationship between the servant (who comes in on Goodbye to that country home , Farewell to a lady I have known… ) and the narrator is the sexual one. Say the servant was a ladies maid, and that the shame was an affair with the narrator? What she did to the lady was betray her trust. There is a deep link between the narrator and the servant: Let us not bow our heads, for we won’t be complaining … note that, us / our / we. And it makes no difference if we fade away. The intriguing end is That we’re still one and the same, just you and me which might indicate one voice in two aspects, or might mean that narrator and servant are now a couple. If the servant is female, then it’s the narrator who is also the “unfaithful” one, in the ‘infidelity’ sense. They are both unfaithful servants, they are one and the same.
The narrator is also involved with the lady; he is a lover, husband or son which means that he and the servant are retreating together, and in spite of the regrets he sings I can see it in your smile, which would be a knowing, conspiratorial smile.

Pat Brennan
A Robbie Robertson songbook published with a ton of his input claims the song is written in the voice of a "master bidding goodbye to the servant with whom he's had an affair'

So this makes the narrator the master, and the servant someone who has offended the mistress, by having an affair with the master. Pat’s quote indicates that the servant IS female, cuts out son / brother / lover as possibilities (and answers most of the questions). After reading this quote (when I thought I’d finished) I had to go back and remove several maybe’s, might’s and possibly’s!

  • Even if you persist with a male servant, he may or may not have been screwing the lady. unfaithful can mean betraying trust in a general sense, or in a more limited sense refer to sexual infidelity. I don’t read it in the limited sense. The implication is general I’m sure, though that does not rule out a specific sexual transgression. A lady I have known could be known as in the bible. Or it could simply mean that the lady was not a remote figure, but a friend who shared her home. In any case, we don’t know who is the instigator, the lady or the servant. The lady is in the position of power over a male servant (Come here, young man …). A female servant would have had a relationship with the narrator. In both cases there is a figure who holds power, and one who is exploited.
  • Already answered above. It could of course be both. Or either. Helpful.
  • You can argue this one. Danko sings the whole thing. Given The Band’s taste for switching voices, you’d have expected them to bring in Richard for the first person section. They don’t. I’m trying not to be crass, many songwriters have switched narrative voices within a song without changing vocalists. It’s just that The Band were heavily into switching at this time. The servant could be addressing herself / himself in the third person elswhere, and switching to first person here. Then We’re still one and the same becomes a knowing audio “wink” to the listener. Or if the narrator and the servant are in a sexual relationship, they are joined both physically and in their intent.
  • Theft? (and why not?) Screwing the lady’s husband / lover / brother / son and being caught? Or boasting about it? Screwing the lady and telling all and sundry? I think we’re seeing the same concerns which surfaced in The Rumor, those of gossip, saying too much, and thus betrayal. The servant was in a trusted position. The servant lived in the house and held keys (or even the main keys). They shared a home. A home, not a house. The sin and the shame would be the result of airing whatever was going on to public view. This is clear in the line or did you do it just for the glory? The glory was boasting about it, telling all.
In the end it’s an enigma (what an easy let out). Whatever, Robertson’s sense of time lends the story of this particular eternal triangle a sense of dignity and regret. Compare a headline like ‘Rock star screws babysitter’ or ‘Rock star has affair with cleaner’ which would be an inevitably sordid modern-day version!


Original album version:
The Band

Major compilations:
To Kingdom Come
Across The Great Divide

Live version:
Rock of Ages

See the Barney Hoskyns quote above.

Classic Albums: The Band

Rick Danko plays acoustic guitar and sings solo in the studio for a few lines. Garth demonstrates his sax solo.

Bootleg version:
Live At The Hollywood Bowl, October 1970

The song was a regular live number up until Rock of Ages. After that it gets rare. Maybe they did the definitive version. It’s so good on Rock of Ages that dropping it as a live number was an odd choice, but either things have to be pruned as the list of songs get longer, or you follow the Dylan / Van Morrison route of having a lot of songs used in rotation. Unfortunately, The Band have never opted for this. A quick trawl through Tapes on this site shows it as absent from the 1976 tours, absent from the 1980s reunion shows, and absent from the 1990s “new” Band set list. They played it as The Band in 1974 (7th June in Buffalo at least), and there are two versions by Danko with Paul Butterfield (again at least), in Boulder in December 1979 and again in April 1984 with Butterfield and Manuel. I find it surprising that Rick Danko hasn’t featured it regularly on solo shows, as the format allows him to do tunes at the drop of a hat. I’d suspect that you wouldn’t do It Makes No Difference and The Unfaithful Servant close together in the same show, and that the former has become the essential Rick Danko number.

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