The idea of reaping rewards — from community, from longevity, from the generations — is perhaps nowhere in sharper focus on The Band than during this key deep cut. In many ways, “Rockin’ Chair” is also the connective tissue between this far more varied follow up and the group’s determinedly rustic debut from a year before.
Richard Manuel completely inhabits Robbie Robertson’s central character, a wisened sailor who hopes to retire back to Virginia after years on the high seas to share porch-side tales with his buddy Ragtime Willie. Whether they ever get there or not is part of the song’s lasting mystery. Robertson, meanwhile, switches to acoustic for an old-timey, drummer-less arrangement, made complete with Levon Helm’s mandolin and Garth Hudson’s accordion.
Manuel is soon joined, first by Helm and then by Rick Danko, for some of the album’s most poignantly touching, deeply intimate harmonies. Underscored by Danko’s sensitive approach on the bass, the Band’s fallen voices couldn’t be more memorably ardent.
All of that only serves to further underscore how out of time the Band was. Working within an art form that has always been about currency, they reached back into the 19th century for inspiration. That very sense of dislocation, however, of rebellion against the new for an embrace of tradition is what makes these early Band themes so timeless today.
Of course, any discussion about life’s final chapter, about the trajectory our fates take — whether we’d planned it that way or not — remains all but verboten in the youth-obsessed world of rock. That a group of young men in their 20s, as the Band was at this moment, could say so many things about the pull of old ways, old friends and the old home place remains simply remarkable.
It’s wisdom still received as if just uttered.
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.