The Weight (1968)

The Band

Written by J.R. "Robbie" Robertson
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The weight single mainIt was 1968 – an explosive, pivotal year no matter how you slice it. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the spring. Devastating riots gripped black communities across the country following King’s murder.

Police fought demonstrators in the streets of Chicago in August. On the social thermometer, opposition to the war in Vietnam had hit 110 in the shade. In Europe, Mexico and Japan, major demonstrations and disruptions caused governments to teeter on the edge.

It was all a heavy weight to bear.

Put it on, and take a load off

In ’68, the classic rock music scene – like the acid-fueled minds of the young – was expanding furiously, producing many of the top-100 rock songs and albums of all time. A short list provides us with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; The Beatles’ White Album; The Stones’ Beggars Banquet; Jimi’s Electric Ladyland; Buffalo Springfield – Last Time Around; Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills; Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida; The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; and Cream’s Wheels Of Fire. 

Catskill Mountains countryside and barn

Catskill Mountains countryside and 19th century barn

None equal the Band’s Music From Big Pink.

Up through the marching on the left and murderous oppression from authoritarian forces, pushed Music From Big Pink, a down-home, folksy, bluesy, jazzy album rooted in the American past. One is obliged to say “North American past,” because four out of five members of the Band were Canadian.

Yet Big Pink is a peculiarly American album. It could very well be the most American album ever recorded.

The work grows out of New York State’s Catskill Mountain region, an area famous for Woodstock, but known for 125 years as a center of art, music, and comedy. Big Pink is the closest rock will ever come to modern “northern” country music.

“The Weight” figures as the song most steeped in the riotous American mythology of Big Pink, one that seems to operate somewhere in time between the Civil War and the waning of the 1960s.

On top of this the track is also rooted in crypto-Biblical symbolism that hints at the lost, forgotten country roads traveled by itinerant preachers, medicine shows and hoboes – a specific type of journey that was being bulldozed aside by modernism as the crazed ’60s came to a shuddering, shaking close.

This was the intent of the Band’s members, in fact: to shrink down psychedelic and hard-rocking veins that had been popping on the forehead of rock music and return to something simpler and less cluttered, musically and psychologically.

In the process, “The Weight” has become a song that practically all Americans (and Canadians, god bless them) know, the way you know childhood nursery rhymes. It is part of North America’s story-telling heritage, made up from whole cloth while feeling like an ancient tradition.

The music inside “The Weight” creates a rich, murky, folkloric feeling, a kind of “broth Americana.”

On the surface, its spare arrangement belies a complexity, presenting as it does, a superbly delicate folksy lead guitar; a backroom-at-the-bar piano dampered from time to time; moody tom-tomming by uber-drummer Levon Helm, and an interplay among three emotional vocalists that is complex, mournful, humorous, fearful, plaintive and yearning. But yearning for what?

I pulled into Nazareth
I was feeling ‘bout half past dead
I just need a place
Where I can lay my head
Hey mister can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed
He just grinned, shook my hand
No, was all he said

Bob Dylan's painting of The Band

Bob Dylan’s painting of The Band for the cover of album Big Pink

We won’t parse all the blurry Good Book allusions here. They are a shrewd device that lyricist Robbie Robertson employed in his usual intellectually slick manner.

In this case, the Nazareth in question is Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home to famed Martin Guitars. It serves the purpose of setting a mood. But it is also a curveball. Joseph and Mary came from the Holy Land’s Nazareth and were looking for a place to sleep in Bethlehem. Right away, all biblical bets are off.

What is really being sought in Nazareth – as “The Weight” tells it – is rest for the weary from an increasingly chaotic and clamorous world. (It’s no accident Martin is the king of acoustic versus electric guitars.) The narrator is on a small quest – to deliver some sort of message on behalf of Miss Fanny, “who sent me here with her regards for everyone.”

Although it is hard to say for certain, that message seems to contain some sort of apology – something regrettable has happened. Perhaps Miss Fanny simply headed out into the wider world? Her message is advice to stay in that other, better world of “The Weight,” washed with a romantic patina, and not to come into the contentious, rancorous present.

But that “old world” is filled with plenty of whacky people and confounding events. Nothing in the old days was straightforward.

There is Carmen who walks side by side with the devil and has to leave the narrator with her good buddy Satan as a walking companion. There’s “just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the judgment day.” But Luke is admonished to stay in the here and now, and keep “Anna Lee company.”

There’s Crazy Chester who navigates the fog the narrator finds himself in. Chester is based on a real-life character that the Band was actually familiar with. He was liable to say something crazy at anytime, about anything. So, it is more of an amusing anecdotal observation than anything symbolic.

“The Weight” is filled with an older America: religionists; consorts of the devil; a village idiot; a forlorn lover; and the town elder, Miss Moses (a soft echo of painter Grandma Moses, perhaps).

Even when the narrator leaves, he doesn’t slide into his car or board a plane, he catches “a cannonball,” a high-speed express train from years gone by.

The Staple Singers joined The Band to sing "The Weight" at the Last Waltz concert

The Staple Singers joined The Band to sing “The Weight” at the Last Waltz in San Francisco,1976

The interpretations of “The Weight” run from the ridiculous to the sublime. Yes, indeed it has a mystical aura about it. Indeed it is set in mythological rather than real time. Yes, the legends and lore of the Catskills and other parts of the Northeast down to the hills of Arkansas play a part.

In the end, “The Weight” is a mosaic, in the sense that it takes bits and pieces from other sources and concepts (like the Bible) and expertly blacksmiths them into a story that magically moves us without our really knowing why. Harkening back to a simpler time.

It is a thinly disguised morality play – almost medieval – shunted from that only by having been set in the Band’s mythical lost America rather than 1000 A.D. It is filled with advice, not the least of which is found in the three-part harmony refrain that anchors the song.

Take a load off, Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny
And, and, and…
You put the load right on me

The narrator is telling Miss Fanny that – even though the new world they usually inhabit is out of control – she can relax. He’s more or less taken care of business in the lost world, he will return to her, and it was terribly fitting that she did rely on him.

In the case of “The Weight,” the whole is much greater than the mere sum of its parts.

You can even ask the Muppets how good this song is…

  • The cover art for the album Music From Big Pink is a Primitivist painting of The Band by Bob Dylan. 
  • Robbie Robertson said of the work: “This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make.”

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