HELM: Yank carried 'The Weight.'
Although Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Band drew inspiration from Americana, the group was comprised of four Canadians and only one American — Phillips County’s Levon Helm. And if the Band has one defining song, it is “The Weight.”
“The Weight” closes side one of the Band’s 1968 Capitol Records debut, “Music From Big Pink.” Drummer Helm sings the first three verses of the song solo, bassist Rick Danko the fourth, and Helm and pianist Richard Manuel the fifth. “We wanted ‘Music From Big Pink’ to sound like nothing anyone else was doing,” Helm says. “We’d grown up with [Madison County-born rockabilly bandleader] Ronnie Hawkins playing that quicker tempo of tunes. Now we cut our tempo, our pulse, right in half.”
“The characters that appear in the lyrics — Luke, Anna Lee and Crazy Chester — were all people we knew,” Helm says.
“Old Luke” was Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman, a former bandmate from the Hawkins days. “Young Anna Lee” was Anna Lee Williams from Phillips County. “Crazy Chester” was from Fayetteville, and reportedly wore a holster and patrolled city streets brandishing cap guns.
Besides the traveling narrator, other “Weight” characters include Carmen, the devil, Miss Moses, Miss Fanny and Jack, a dog. The action takes place in Nazareth, possibly Nazareth, Pa., home of the Martin Guitar factory, but no state is referenced. Band guitarist Robbie Robertson said the song was inspired by themes of “the impossibility of sainthood” explored by Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
“We weren’t sure [“The Weight”] was going to be on the album, but people sure liked it,” Helm said. The album’s afterthought instead became its centerpiece — and the Band’s most enduring song.
“The Weight” only reached No. 63 on the U.S. charts (No. 21 in the UK). But it appeared in other touchstones of the era, being performed by the Band at the Woodstock festival in July 1969, and heard in the 1969 movie “Easy Rider” — although the song is not on either film’s soundtrack, nor did the Band appear in the “Woodstock” movie.
The song was quickly discovered by others, especially soul and R&B artists. Jackie DeShannon sang it in 1968. Aretha Franklin’s version went top 20 in the spring of 1969; The Supremes with the Temptations charted with it again that fall. Family gospel group the Staples recorded it in September 1968, the month the Band released it as a single.
The Staple Singers — signed to Memphis’ Stax label by Brinkley native Al Bell — had been the first to cover any Band song when “The Weight” appeared on their Stax album “Soul Folk in Action.” The Staples were invited to the Band’s Thanksgiving 1976 star-studded final concert, but were on tour in Europe. Needing additional footage for the planned film about the concert, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” the Band and the Staples recorded “The Weight” on an MGM Studios soundstage in 1977. It was the last music the original five musicians would produce together.
Through the years, “The Weight” has been covered by John Denver, Joe Cocker, the Chambers Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Marty Stuart — even instrumental band the Ventures. Jazz-pop vocalist Cassandra Wilson, a former Little Rock resident, opened her 2002 album “Belly of the Sun” with “The Weight.” It was part of the soundtrack of the 1983 hit movie “The Big Chill.” During recent months, the song could be heard in a TV commercial for cell phones. In several forms, “The Weight” lives on.
• Staple Singers, “The Weight,” 1968
• The Band, “The Weight,” 1968
• Cassandra Wilson, “The Weight,” 2002