Let’s start where most people start – The Weight. This 1968 single off The Band’s debut album Music from the Big Pink uses elements from folk, country and gospel to tell the story of a traveler in Nazareth. The characters in the song are friends of The Band despite the numerous biblical interpretations of the song. The story, cutting out the chorus goes like this:
I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead. I just needed some place where I can lay my heads. Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said.
I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide when I saw Carmen and the Devil walking side by side. I said, “Hey Carmen c’mon let’s go downtown.” She said, “I gotta go but my friend can stick around.”
Go down, Miss Moses, ain’t nothin’ you can say. It’s just like old Luke, and Luke’s waiting on the judgement day. Well Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee? He said, “Do me a favor son, won’t you stay and keep Annalee company?”
Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog, said “I will fix your rag, if you’ll take Jack my dog.” I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.” He said, “That’s ok boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”
Catch the cannonball, now take me down the line. My bag is sinking low and I do believe it’s time to get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one who sent me here with her regards for everyone.
Levon Helms, the story’s author, reported in his autobiography that Luke, Chester and Anna Lee were friends of the band and that the reference to Nazareth refers to the Pennsylvania hometown of C.F. Martin & Company – an instrument manufacturer and undoubtedly a holy city to many American musicians. Our narrator arrives here, to the holy land, weary from his journey, turned away from comfort and forced to go interact with the street-dwelling characters inhabiting the town.
(Levon Helms, photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.)
There is much discussion about the biblical nature of the lyrics, the civil rights struggle that may be referenced throughout, and the intentions of the storytellers. Rather than telling my interpretation of the song, the journey I took in hearing it, and the conclusion I’ve reached in my countless times hearing it, I want to have a dialogue with our readers in the comments.
- How does the seemingly biblical lyrical content of the song relate to the Americana folk style of the music accompanying?
- This song was released in 1968 – the same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the same year Dr. King was assassinated – what does this song have to say, if anything, about civil rights of the time?
- What about this song as cemented its place as an American classic, despite it being produced by a Canadian band?
- The song was performed at 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. What does it, and its performance, have in common with some of the other famous 1969 Woodstock performances? Examples may include Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner, Richie Havens’ Freedom, and Arlo Guthrie’s Comin Into Los Angeles.