A cinematic, fever dream of a song, “The Weight” remains both an enigma and an emblem for its singer Levon Helm and the Band. Just what this track’s burden is? Well, that’s brilliantly unspoken, and theories over the years have run from a drug deal gone wrong, to a nasty case of the clap, to the idea of a traveling innocent coming of age through a series of Robert Johnson-level mishaps.
To be so resonant, to have become so closely associated with the sound and the myth of this group, it’s interesting to note that “The Weight” almost didn’t make Music From Big Pink.
“The Weight” was something Robbie Robertson had been working on, but that lay unfinished — and largely ignored. Late in the proceedings, the Band took it up again, but this time with Garth Hudson on piano (his saloon-rattling fills would become a signature element) and Richard Manuel at the organ. It would, belatedly, become one of six songs recorded on a four-track at A&R Studios in New York, and Helm’s only lead on the Band’s debut. Helm had split as the Hawks became a backing group for Bob Dylan and 1965, not to return until they had their own deal. But, by then, much of the music that would become Music from Big Pink had already been developed through The Basement Tapes sessions.
Helm’s presence — both as a singer and as the wellspring for so many of this song’s principal characters — would serve as the catalyst that hurtled the Band into the wider public consciousness, apart from Dylan.
“The Weight,” a canny combination of Americana and deep South gospel, became a Top 40 hit in both Canada and the UK. Though the track stalled at just No. 63 on the Billboard charts, it would eventually chart three more times in the U.S. over the next year or so when covered by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DeShannon and the Supremes. None quite captured the seminal sense of dark-hued wonder put forth by Helm, and then Rick Danko (who steps to the fore for the fourth verse, then provides key shadings for the fifth) on the Band’s original. That vocal interplay — shared but not in unison — between Helm, Danko and Manuel (who adds a pained, wordless high harmony) owed much of its style to the Staple Singers, later collaborators on the Martin Scorsese-directed Last Waltz project.
Of course, pinning down exactly what’s happened to our wandering protagonist never became any clearer. Owing much to Robertson’s fascination at the time with Luis Buñuel’s surreal style of filmmaking, the narrative presents a kaleidoscopic array of images, reference points — and blind alleys.
There are, to be sure, deep Faulknerian undertones — an idea, no doubt, sparked by the lyrical reference to “Go Down Moses,” one of the legendary Southern writer’s most memorable short stories. (It was, further back, an ageless African-American spiritual.) Faulkner’s tale of a small-time crook’s death-row fate syncs up in places, even boasting a bit character named Luke Beauchamp. But, in the end, that’s more of an atmospheric connection than anything that can be overtly argued.
There’s simply too much going on in “The Weight” to pin it to any one antecedent — and that surely was Robertson’s intent. The song is, at once, filled with specific moments and Rorschach-like in its ability to create differing impressions, even on successive listenings.
What is known, at least for careful readers of Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, is that “The Weight” is peopled with familiars from his native Arkansas. (Anna Lee Williams, Helm says, lived in Turkey Scratch, Helm’s hometown. Crazy Chester was a well-known figure in Fayetteville.) Robertson, meanwhile, admits that many of the song’s central moments were inspired by a trip back to the Delta with Helm. And yet, as with much of the group’s repertoire, songwriting for “The Weight” was credited solely to Robertson — a point of deep contention late in Helm’s life and, nowadays, for many of the Band’s most ardent fans.
That too becomes part of the cautionary tale that is “The Weight,” a song that Robertson, in the 1992 Mary Pat Kelly book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, said was “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.”
Across the Great Divide, Nick DeRiso’s song-by-song examination of the Band — both together and apart — runs on Thursday mornings at SomethingElseReviews.com.
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