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By Herb Bowie
I recently came across the Playing for Change Song Around the World video of Robbie Robertson's composition “The Weight,” and it made me want to think – and write! – more deeply about how this song works, and what it means, and the timeless nature of its appeal.
Let's just read the lyrics through first (and listen to the music), and then talk about it.
I pulled into Nazareth,
Was feeling about half past dead.
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head.
"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.
Take a load off Fanny.
Take a load for free.
Take a load off Fanny,
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me.
(You put the load right on me)
I picked up my bag,
I went looking for a place to hide.
When I saw Carmen and the Devil
Walking side by side.
I said, "Hey, Carmen,
Come on, let's go downtown."
She said, "I gotta go,
But my friend can stick around."
Go down, Miss Moses,
There's nothing you can say.
It's just old Luke and
Luke's waiting on the Judgment Day.
Well, Luke, my friend,
What about young Anna Lee?
He said, "Do me a favor, son,
Won't you stay and keep Anna Lee company?"
Crazy Chester followed me
And he caught me in the fog.
He said, "I will fix your rack,
If you'll take Jack, my dog."
I said, "Wait a minute, Chester,
You know I'm a peaceful man."
He said, "That's okay, boy,
Won't you feed him when you can?"
Catch a cannon ball
Now to 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.
One of the remarkable things about this song is that, even though there is nothing about it that obviously brands it as country music, or as gospel, or as religious music, it still manages to summon up ghosts of The Carter Family, and that rich vein of traditional American music that sings of sacrifice, suffering, family and redemption.
There is, to start with, the opening verse that talks about pulling into Nazareth and being unable to find a place to sleep, with its obvious similarity to the story of the birth of Christ. We get extra meaning from this verse when we learn that Robbie Robertson was also thinking of Nazareth, Pennsylvania as the home of Martin Guitar, a natural destination for a very different sort of pilgrimage for a guitar player born and raised in Canada.
And then there are also references to the Devil, to Luke, to Moses and to the Judgment Day, all contributing to the overall sense that our singer is working his way through a very Christian landscape. And when he talks about catching a cannonball to take him down the line, we understand that he is talking about a train, something like the Wabash Cannonball, as described in an American folk song first published in 1882.
Structurally, the song is just about perfect in its simplicity. The first verse tells us of the singer's arrival in town, the fifth verse tells us of his departure, and the three verses in between recount his various encounters while visiting.
Just reading over the lyrics, one is tempted to view the song in a comic vein, as one colorful character after another denies the singer's varied requests, while at the same time thrusting some new unwanted companion into his arms, until the singer finally decides to return home, revealing that his only reason for visiting town in the first place was to convey Miss Fanny's “regards for everyone.” From this perspective it seems to fall neatly into an American style of storytelling probably best evoked through a comparison to Mark Twain: you can almost picture this as one of Huck Finn's stops on his travels down the Mississippi.
But, in listening to the original performance by The Band, produced by John Simon, the music lends the song a whole different sense of gravitas. Vocals, bass, drums, guitar and piano all convey an earnest depth of feeling that belie any sort of tongue-in-cheek that might have been present in the unadorned lyrics. And while composer Robertson may have been able to maintain a sort of ironic distance from his subject matter, lead vocalist and drummer Levon Helm, the sole American member of The Band, hailing from Arkansas, delivers these lines as if he had been living them his entire life.
And what does this music tell us? The verses are delivered with a sort of plodding, bottom-heavy, weary cadence, signaling a sort of inevitability to the outcome even before the lyrics provide the details of each encounter.
But then there's the magnificent chorus. The piano lifts us up, then other voices join in to sing “Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free! Take a load off Fanny…” Then the instruments pause dramatically, as one, two and then three voices come together, a cappella, singing “and, and, and…” and then gradually converging to sing “you put the load right on me.” The backing instruments then gradually descend – with a delicate, inchoate vocal in the background – the drums kick in, and we're into the next verse.
So what are we to make of all this, thematically? What do we come away with? At this point it's helpful to refer to the photo titled “Next of Kin” that graced the back of the Music from Big Pink album cover, and is shown above. It was taken by Elliott Landy at the Danko chicken farm in Simcoe, Ontario, and features the members of The Band, alongside many of their family members, including children and grandparents. If this photo had appeared on an album cover for The Mothers of Invention, or some other rock groups of the sixties, it would have been with a sense of irony. But none of that is present here. This was The Band saying this is who we are, this is what we're made of, this is the stock we come from, this is the legacy we carry with us.
And it's also helpful at this point to realize that, having reviewed all of the song's lyrics, the title of this song, simple as it is, appears nowhere in those vocals.
So what is this Weight?
Well now let's treat ourselves to the video recorded to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the song, the aforementioned Song Around the World rendition. And as I watch and listen to this diverse set of singers and players from all over the planet – including composer Robbie Robertson and former Beatle Ringo Starr – come together to perform this moving piece, I can't help but feel that they are singing about our human family, our next of kin bound to us by common genetics, but also by a common reverence for the heritage that has been passed to us, along with the responsibility to in turn pass it on to others… to pass on this simple message… that despite all appearances, despite the daily insults and rejections, we are all part of something larger, sharing a common human culture, one that stretches back into the past, and on into the future, and across the globe, spanning languages and national boundaries.
And so this, I think, is why we finally raise our voices, not in sorrow, but in a sort of high, lonesome joy, accepting this weight of responsibility with all the grace that we can muster, knowing that when someone we love and respect asks us to pass their kindest regards on to others, we really have no choice but to do so, no matter how we may be received.
And so just as our our singer accepts the burden of carrying Miss Fanny's message – even after coming to understand its full weight – these players and singers from around the world seem to have in turn accepted the responsibility to carry on this message from The Band, fifty years on, knowing that the song is still as meaningful and true and necessary as when it first graced the airwaves back in 1968.
And so, finally, this tremendous song joins the great tapestry, one more thread to be passed down, one more timeless piece of art fleshing out this idea of what it means to be human, to be a member of the human family, to be connected to one another by bonds both joyous and grievous.
May we all know such kith and kin.
Published 2020 Apr 06