The idea, as relayed by Levon Helm, that “Up on Cripple Creek” was a difficult song to capture on tape runs counter to everything you hear on this galloping moment of sheer joy.
When then finally nailed it, however, “Cripple Creek” became a signature moment: From its thunderous bottom end, all sharp-elbowed turns and goofball funk, to the paradise-on-earth reverie found in its title spot, to Garth Hudson’s saucy jew’s harp sound (which he got by running his clavinet — long before Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — through a wah wah), everything about this song has a hip-wagging immediacy. “Cripple Creek” is so greasy and cool that the track would one day by sampled by Gang Starr on the 1991 hip-hop offering “Beyond Comprehension.”
“It kind of felt better, and it made it more danceable,” Helm once said of the song’s loping rhythm structure. “With the half-time feel, we were able to do that for ‘Up on Cripple Creek,’ and three or four more. ‘The Weight’ is another good example, back on Big Pink. There were no rules. It felt good, and we went with it.”
Fans responded, making this the Band’s first (and, ultimately, their only) Top 30 American hit.
As for its origins, this Robbie Robertson construction seems to have jumped off from a similarly named bluegrass folk song, recorded by both Charlie Poole and the Stanley Brothers, among others. (There’s even some hound-dog yodeling toward the end from Helm and Rick Danko; the Band, of course, had earlier covered Poole’s “If I Lose.”)
In this new iteration, we follow along as the Helm-voiced truck driving mischief-maker heads down the mountain considering a series of scally-wag adventures — but really, as Levon’s cries make clear, he remains utterly paralyzed by an inability to choose between the comforts of home and a particularly alluring woman in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
That Helm accomplishes all of this while he’s playing the drums — this stunning performance on “Cripple Creek,” like Hudson’s, was recorded live — only adds to the song’s lasting sense of wonder. “People give me good credit, and I appreciate it,” the late Helm once countered. “They think it’s harder to play when you sing, but it’s actually easier, because you play along. You leave holes, and there’s where you sing.” But nobody, bless him, ever sounded better doing it.
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.