The Band, “Caledonia Mission” from Music from Big Pink (1968): Across the Great Divide

A showcase for Rick Danko, not just as a mournful and country-inflected singer but also as a rapturously melodic bass player, “Caledonia Mission” also remains one of Robbie Robertson’s more oblique narratives.

It seems by turns to be about a romantic betrayal or, perhaps, a problem with the law. Whatever the trouble here, it sparks Danko (and Richard Manuel, with the second vocal) toward raw depths of emotion, even as Robertson stuffs in a quote from the I-Ching, a stray reference to Arkansas (later omitted in live performances), an endlessly mysterious love interest, no small amount of hocus pocus about old hound dogs, fortune tellers and ginned-up moonshine, and a hard-ass magistrate.

Ronnie Hawkins, the group’s early touring mentor, has posited that the song is about a drug bust that happened to Danko at the Toronto airport, just before they joined Bob Dylan. Levon Helm, who switches to guitar here while Manuel plays drums, later agreed in his autobiography. I’m not sure I hear that tucked away in this image-filled tapestry, but that’s not to say that it’s not there — somewhere.

Meanwhile, Greil Marcus, in his heralded rock tome Mystery Train, used the song as a weigh station amidst a larger theme on finding community — since the narrator’s fate seems to be bound up with the woman’s behind the mission walls. Certainly, songs like this one and their still-to-come fable “The Weight” back up the notion that the Band was searching for connective elements that bind people, families, generations and nations.

Yet such is the magic of Robertson’s quickly evolving gift as a songwriter that he could fashion such a resonant tale, with so many memorably descriptive images, without ever completely settling on a narrative arc. It’s about all of those things, and I suppose none of them.

But this song, for all of its moving parts, will always belong to Danko. The Rock of Ages version above, released in 1972, illustrates how completely true that was — even within a much more boisterous setting. All of the original’s acoustic-focused angles have been replaced by Allen Toussaint’s brawny brass, but Danko’s quiveringly ardent vocal (so full of doubt, and yet so completely in love) remains the center point.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • These articles / insights into the music that have been with me for 50 years are so damn cool and on point. A salute to you and big thanks Mr. DeRiso, your work has become one of my touchstone writers.