|Single by the Band|
|from the album Music from Big Pink|
|B-side||"I Shall Be Released"|
|Released||August 8, 1968|
|Studio||A&R Recorders (studio A), New York City|
|The Band singles chronology|
"The Weight" is an original song by the Canadian-American group the Band that was released as a single in 1968 and on the group's debut album Music from Big Pink. Written by Band member Robbie Robertson, the song is about a visitor's experiences in a town mentioned in the lyric's first line as Nazareth. "The Weight" has significantly influenced American popular music, having been listed as No. 41 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time published in 2004. Pitchfork Media named it the 13th best song of the Sixties, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. PBS, which broadcast performances of the song in Ramble at the Ryman (2011), Austin City Limits (2012), and Quick Hits (2012), describes it as "a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters" and notes its enduring popularity as "an essential part of the American songbook."
"The Weight" is one of the Band's best known songs, gaining considerable album-oriented rock airplay even though it was not a significant hit single for the group in the US, peaking at only No. 63. After it was released, the record debuted just six days later on KHJ's "'Boss 30' records" and peaked at No. 3 there three weeks later. The Band's recording also fared well in Canada and the UK – in those countries, the single was a top 40 hit, peaking at No. 35 in Canada and No. 21 in the UK in 1968.
The song had three cover releases in 1968 and 1969 with arrangements that appealed to a diversity of music audiences. Aretha Franklin's 1969 soul music arrangement was included in her This Girl's in Love with You album, which peaked in the U.S. at No. 19 on the Hot 100 and No. 3 on the soul chart and also peaked in Canada at No. 12. Jackie DeShannon's 1968 pop arrangement, debuting on the Hot 100 one week before The Band's, peaked at No. 55 in the US and No. 35 in Canada. A joint single rhythm and blues arrangement, released by Diana Ross & the Supremes and The Temptations in 1969, hit No. 46 in the US and No. 36 in Canada. The Band's and Jackie DeShannon's versions never mentioned the title. The Band's version—in its original release, not counting certain other releases later—credits the group's individual members—Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm—on the record label, rather than the Band as a single entity. The group had signed to Capitol as the Krackers and the name "the Band" had yet to be arrived at when Music from Big Pink was issued. The group was not identified as "the Band" until their second album.
Inspiration and influences
The inspiration for and influences affecting the composition of "The Weight" came from the music of the American South, the life experiences of band members, particularly Levon Helm, and movies of filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel. There are also hints of influences involving drug deals and the band's relationship with known drug dealer Cathy Smith.
The original members of the Band performed "The Weight" as an American Southern folk song with country music (vocals, guitars and drums) and gospel music (piano and organ) elements. The lyrics, written in the first-person, are about a traveler's experiences arriving, visiting, and departing a town called Nazareth. According to Robertson, this is based on Nazareth, Pennsylvania, because it was the home of Martin Guitars. He wrote the guitar parts on a 1951 Martin D-28. The singers, led by Helm, vocalize the traveler's encounters with people in the town from the perspective of a Bible Belt American Southerner, like Helm himself, a native of rural Arkansas.
The colorful characters in "The Weight" were based on real people that members of the Band knew, as Levon Helm explained in his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire. In particular, "young Anna Lee" mentioned in the third verse is Helm's longtime friend Anna Lee Amsden, and, according to her, "Carmen" was from Helm's hometown, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. "Crazy Chester" was an eccentric resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who carried a cap gun. Ronnie Hawkins would tell him to "keep the peace" at his Rockwood Club when Chester arrived.
According to Robertson, "The Weight" was inspired by the movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel's films are known for their surreal imagery and criticism of organized religion, particularly Catholicism. The song's lyrics and music invoke vivid imagery, the main character's perspective is influenced by the Bible, and the episodic story was inspired by the predicaments Buñuel's film characters faced that undermined their goals for maintaining or improving their moral character. Of this, Robertson once stated:
(Buñuel) did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. People trying to be good in Viridiana and Nazarín, people trying to do their thing. In "The Weight" it's the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn't necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it's impossible to be good. In "The Weight" it was this very simple thing. Someone says, "Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say 'hello' to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh? You're going to Nazareth, that's where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you're there." This is what it's all about. So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it's like "Holy shit, what's this turned into? I've only come here to say 'hello' for somebody and I've got myself in this incredible predicament." It was very Buñuelish to me at the time.
This is also related in Robertson's 2016 autobiography, Testimony.
Notable performances by the Band
The Band's performance of "The Weight" in the 1968 studio recording included
- Levon Helm – lead and harmony vocals, drums
- Rick Danko – lead (fourth verse) and harmony vocals, bass guitar
- Richard Manuel – Hammond organ (cut), harmony vocals
- Garth Hudson – piano
- Robbie Robertson – acoustic guitar
The official recording credits on the single belong to the above names, in that order, not to the Band per se. In 2005, a remix of the song with Richard Manuel's organ restored was released as a download-only bonus track for the iTunes Music Store version of A Musical History.
An edited version of the studio recording was included in the popular American counterculture film Easy Rider, which was released in July 1969. "The Weight" played while the protagonists, hippie motorcyclists, enjoyed a ride through Monument Valley. The version on the soundtrack album is performed by Smith due to a failure to negotiate the rights to the original recording.
On August 17, 1969, the Band performed "The Weight" as the tenth song in their set at Woodstock. The Woodstock arrangement was more elaborate than the comparatively elemental and spare studio recording. It retained Robertson's simple folk guitar introduction, but Helm's slow studio performance drum bangs were replaced by a short drum roll that provided the feel of a faster tempo though the actual tempo was the same as the studio performance. Manuel's organ, which was mixed out of the studio recording, was prominent; and Robertson participated vocally in the choruses.
Just after their November 25, 1976, "farewell concert," the Band performed a gospel arrangement of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers that was filmed for The Last Waltz. Mavis and Pops Staples sang second and third verse lead vocals, respectively, and Robertson performed with an electric guitar. This performance of "The Weight" was included on the 1978 soundtrack album from the film. The Band's performance of the song during the concert itself was later included in a 2002 extended re-release of the soundtrack album.
In 1989, when the Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, "The Weight" was performed by Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson, with Blue Rodeo accompanying.
Songwriting credit dispute
The songwriting credit to Robbie Robertson for "The Weight", like credit for many of the songs performed by the Band, was disputed years later by Levon Helm. Helm insisted that the composition of the lyrics and the music was collaborative, declaring that each band member made a substantial contribution. In an interview, Helm credited Robertson with 60 percent of the lyrics, Danko and Manuel with 20 percent each of the lyrics, much of the music credit to Garth Hudson, and a small credit to himself for lyrics.
Versions by other artists
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (July 2021)
- In 1969, Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations recorded a version of "The Weight" for their album Together. Released as a single, it appeared on several charts, including numbers 46 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 and 33 on its Best Selling Soul Singles charts.[a]
- A version by Jackie DeShannon for Imperial Records in 1968 reached number 55 on the U.S. Pop chart, and number 35 in Canada.
- In 1993, Australians Jimmy Barnes and the Badloves covered "The Weight" and released it as the fourth single from Barnes' seventh studio album Flesh and Wood. It peaked at number six on the Australian ARIA Charts.
- In 2006, Canadian country music artist Aaron Pritchett covered "The Weight" on his album Big Wheel. It was released as a single and reached number six on the Billboard Canada Country chart, and number 90 on the Canadian Hot 100.
- Fontenot, Robert. "What is Country Rock?". ThoughtCo. About.com. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
- Bruce Pollock (August 26, 2005). Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs for the Rock and Roll Era. Routledge. p. 398. ISBN 9780415970730.
- "The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". RollingStone.com. Retrieved 2007-06-02.
- "The 200 Greatest Songs of the Sixties". Pitchfork.com. August 18, 2006. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- "InfoPlease Almanac". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- Leahey, Andrew (2012-11-08). "Watch 'The Weight' From Austin City Limits' Americana Awards Episode". American Songwriter. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-13. Retrieved 2013-01-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 8th edition
- "KHJ's 'Boss 30' Records In Southern California! Official Issue No. 163". KHJ. 1968-08-14. Retrieved 2019-08-29.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–2004. Record Research. p. 215.
- Myers, Marc (November 29, 2016). " 'The Weight' by the Band's Robbie Robertson". The Wall Street Journal.
- Viney, Peter. "The Weight". The Band. Jan Høiberg. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
- "The Weight". Theband.hiof.no. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
- Margolis, Lynne (2012-08-30). "No False Bones: The Legacy of Levon Helm « Page 2 of 3 « American Songwriter". Americansongwriter.com. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-07-29. Retrieved 2013-01-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Levon Helm and The Band: a rock parable of fame, betrayal, and redemption". CSMonitor.com. 2012-04-20. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
- "History of The Band: The Debut Album". Theband.hiof.no. 1991-07-26. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- Getlen, Larry (2012-04-19). "Levon Helm, RIP | Larry Getlen's Random Thoughts". Larrygetlen.com. Archived from the original on 2017-02-25. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
- Whitburn, Joel (1988). "The Supremes". Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 396. ISBN 0-89820-068-7.
- "RPM 100". RPM. No. 6093. p. 5 – via Bac-lac.gc.ca.
- "CASH BOX Top 100 Singles". Cashbox. October 4, 1969. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
- "100 TOP POPS: Week of September 27, 1969" (PDF). Record World. September 27, 1969. Retrieved January 29, 2021 – via Worldradiohistory.com.
- "Top 50 R&B: Week of October 11, 1969" (PDF). Record World. October 11, 1969. p. 41. Retrieved January 29, 2021 – via Worldradiohistory.com.
- "Aaron Pritchett Chart History (Canada Country)". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.
- "Aaron Pritchett Chart History (Canadian Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.