The Band, “Whispering Pines” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

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On an album dominated by strikingly resonant character studies and plenty of hootenanny fun, “Whispering Pines” thrums with unvarnished, seemingly autobiographical emotion.

Richard Manuel doesn’t sing this as if telling the story of a man walled off by loneliness; he lives and breathes every bruising syllable. Recorded at New York City’s Hit Factory, in final sessions that also included the knee-slapping Levon Helm-sung ribaldry of “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Jemima Surrender,” “Pines” finds Manuel reaching for vocal places in an unguardedly heartbroken way. It may be the most unbearably sad thing the Band ever did.

Yet, as personal as “Whispering Pines” has always sounded, Robertson helped complete this song as Manuel began his steep descent into a drug-fueled writer’s block. The music, and a vocal line, had been composed while playing a piano left behind by painter George Bellows in a house where Manuel lived. But he could get no further.

As with “Dixie Down,” Robertson’s canny ability to echo not just the point of view but the deep-seated feelings of his band mates is again on display. “Richard always had this very plaintive attitude in his voice, and sometimes just in his sensitivity as a person,” Robertson recalled later. “I tried to follow that, to go with it and find it musically.”

In all, Robertson would collaborate with Manuel on five songs between 1969’s The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright, before Manuel’s muse left him. There remained among fans a lasting hope, fueled oddly enough by this song, that one day he’d return to the pen. Its closing verse — shared in an aching loveliness with Helm — certainly paints a dark and cold portrait of despair, but Manuel’s final piano figure (not to mention the phrase: “the lost are found”) offer a quiet sense of respite, of peace at the coming dawn.

If only there had been more of that in Manuel’s tragically short life.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • T Herling

    One thing about this song I’ve always marveled at is how they managed to get such a deep bass sound without it being muddy.

    Another is the vivid and varied textures Garth Hudson used which fit the feel of each song so well. There’s an interview somewhere in which he explains how the Lowery organ allows the use of a greater number of harmonic elements compared to a Hammond, and I think this song is evidence of that.

  • KCramsey

    The 1985 live version is really difficult to listen to; the years of abuse had taken quite a toll on that exquisite voice. I saw Richard, Rick and Garth at a small place in Reading, Pennsylvania around this time and remember enjoying it immensely, though if I could transport myself back to that small club date now I would probably hear a version of “Whispering Pines” that sounded much like this one. The writing was on the wall for what was to come.