Sounding like a cross between a grease-popping Memphis blues and a Storyville saloon song, “Rag Mama Rag” illustrated how complete a grasp the Band had for American song styles — despite their largely Canadian membership.
In other words, there was more than a simple narrative underpinning to Robbie Robertson’s initial notion of calling this sophomore release America. “We felt we knew America,” he once said, “that we’d been around every bend and every block and could talk truthfully about it.”
“Rag Mama Rag,” with its happy, improvisational feel, also showed that they could have fun with it.
After all, most of them weren’t even on their established instruments. Levon Helm, who handled the whiskey-swilling lead vocal, switched to mandolin, while Richard Manuel moved from piano to drums. Bassist Rick Danko is on violin, while Garth Hudson and producer John Simon add a honky tonk attitude on upright piano and tuba, respectively. The randy lyrics — credited solely to Robertson, but later asserted by Helm to have been a collaborative effort — bolster what becomes a moment of boozy, brothel-shaking joy.
Taken together, the track emerges, for me, with a kind of found-object magic — like the quintet was just fooling around, and “Rag Mama Rag” was captured on tape. Closer inspection, of course, quickly undoes that myth-making notion. No, this song rambles along with a focused, air-tight groove. They’re making it look easy, maybe even making it look like a goof, but the Band is in complete control. Every loose-limbed beat, every sawing fiddle bow, every yowling come on — it’s there for a reason.
Fans responded to this toe-tapping hootenanny, and it became a staple of the Band’s, and then Helm’s, setlists from 1969 forward. “Rag Mama Rag” was, in fact, the Band’s highest-charting UK single, going all the way to No. 16. (It stalled at No. 57, oddly enough, in the U.S.) The song memorably appears on the just-reissued Live at the Academy of Music concerts in 1971; and was also on 2011′s Ramble at the Ryman, which earned Helm the last of three straight Grammy awards before he lost a battle with cancer.
Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.