"'The Weight" is a song originally by the Canadian-American group The Band that was released as Capitol Records single 2269 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, from which the Scottish band Nazareth later took its name. "The Weight" has significantly influenced American popular music, having been listed as #41 on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time published in 2004. Pitchfork Medianamed 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 though it was not a significant mainstream hit for group in the U.S., peaking at only #63. The Band's recording fared much better inCanada and the UK – in those countries, the single was a top 40 hit, peaking at #35 in Canada and #21 in the UK in 1968. However, the song's popularity was greatly enhanced by three coverreleases 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 Youalbum, which peaked in the U.S. at #19 and #3 on the soul chart, and peaked in Canada at #12. Jackie DeShannon's 1968 pop music arrangement, debuting on the Hot 100 one week before The Band's, peaked at #55 in the U.S., #35 in Canada. A joint single rhythm and blues arrangement released by Diana Ross & the Supremes and The Temptations in 1969, hit #46 in the U.S., and #36 in Canada. The Band's and Jackie DeShannon's versions never mentioned the title.
- 2 Songwriting credit dispute
- 3 Other cover versions
- 4 Film and commercial play
- 5 References
- 6 External links
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 Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
The original members of The Band performed the "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. 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. After Helm's death in 2012, Robertson, who was raised in Canada, described how visits to the Memphis, Tennessee area, around which Helm grew up, affected him and influenced his songwriting:
- "To me ... going there was like going to the source. Because I was at such a vulnerable age then, it made a really big impact on me. Just that I had the honor joining up with this group and then even going to this place, which was close to a religious experience – even being able to put my feet on the ground there, because I was from Canada, right? So it was like, 'Woah, this is where this music grows in the ground, and [flows from] the Mississippi river. My goodness.' It very much affected my songwriting and, because I knew Levon's musicality so well, I wanted to write songs that I thought he could sing better than anybody in the world.
- "While I was there, I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things ... in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that's what was there. I just felt a strong passion toward the discovery of going there, and it opened my eyes, and all my senses were overwhelmed by the feeling of that place. When I sat down to write songs, that's all I could think of at the time."
The colorful characters in "The Weight" were based on real people 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" and "Crazy Chester" were people from Helm's hometown, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.
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. While the song's lyrics and music invoke vivid imagery and the main character's perspective is influenced by the Bible, the song's 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 Nazarin, 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."
The traveler begins "The Weight" by giving the impression that he is visiting the Holy Land. The traveler is weary from his long journey (e.g., "feelin' 'bout half past dead"), and is looking for a place to stay and sleep, as in the New Testament Gospel of Luke story of Joseph and Mary prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem. In the town, the traveler encounters people with names taken from Biblical characters – the Devil, Miss Moses, and Luke. The traveler encounters others, including Carmen walking with the Devil, whom the traveler meets while trying to find a place to sleep. The traveler asks Carmen to go downtown with him. She responds by telling the traveler that she has something else to do but the Devil "can stick around" with him. The traveler meets Crazy Chester, who offers to provide him with a bed (e.g., "fix his rack") if the traveler will take his dog, Jack. The chorus and last verse mention Miss Fanny (not intended to be sung as "Annie"), who had charged the traveler the responsibility (e.g., "The Weight" or "load") for giving "her regards to everyone" in the town. In the final verse, the traveler leaves Nazareth, dispirited by his experiences (e.g. "my bag is sinking low"). The traveler catches a "cannon ball" (i.e., a train, as in the American folk song "Wabash Cannonball") to go back to see Miss Fanny.
The traveler's apparent visit to a holy city was a goal of the writer and composer, Robbie Robertson, who located the story in Nazareth, because Nazareth, Pennsylvania is the hometown of the C.F. Martin & Company, a famed, long-time producer of guitars and other musical instruments. Such a city might be considered "holy" to American musicians and their friends. In the third verse, the traveler characterizes, using only Biblical references, a disagreement between two friends, Miss Moses and Luke. The traveler tells Miss Moses, "Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say" to Luke, using the Negro spiritual song of liberation "Go Down Moses" to associate her with the African-American civil rights struggle, a crisis that transformed America throughout the 1960s. (In the spiritual, Moses's God commands him to "Tell old Pharaoh, 'Let my people go.'") In doing so, the traveler tells Miss Moses that it is futile to persuade Luke to join or support the movement since his friend is preoccupied with "waitin' on the Judgment Day." Though Luke refuses to participate, he is so concerned that he asks the traveler to stay in Nazareth to take care of the young girl, Anna Lee. In addition, the song's characters have high spiritual meaning to the traveler because the earthly characters mentioned in the song were based on real people The Band knew. However, the traveler's mission, that started with a religious-like fervor, fails to uplift him. At each turn, the people Miss Fanny asks him to meet disappoint him. At the end, by leaving Nazareth, the traveler abandons Anna Lee, his broken vehicle, and his commitment to Fanny's task, though he is not disaffected enough to not travel back to return to Fanny, an indicator of the strength of their relationship that is an uplifting experience to the listener.
The Band's performance of "The Weight" in the 1968 studio recording included
- Robbie Robertson — acoustic guitar
- Rick Danko — lead (fourth verse), backing, and harmony vocals, bass guitar,
- Richard Manuel — Lowrey organ (cut), backing and harmony vocals,
- Garth Hudson — acoustic piano
- Levon Helm — lead and harmony vocals, drums
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.
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. Notably, 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 Lowrey 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 Last Waltz (1978 album), the 1978 soundtrack album from the film. The Band's performance of the song during the concert itself was later included in The Last Waltz (2002 album), a 2002 extended re-release of the soundtrack album.
The songwriting credit to Robbie Robertson for "The Weight" was disputed years later by Levon Helm like many of the songs performed by The Band. 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. (No studio releases by The Band were ever credited to the group as a whole.)
"The Weight" has become a modern standard, and hence has been covered in concert by many other acts, most prominently Little Feat, The Chambers Brothers, Stoney LaRue, Aaron Pritchett, The Staple Singers, Waylon Jennings,Joe Cocker, Travis, Grateful Dead, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, O.A.R., Edwin McCain, The Black Crowes, Spooky Tooth, Hanson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Shannon Curfman, Aretha Franklin, Joan Osborne, John Denver,Trampled by Turtles, Cassandra Wilson, Miranda Lambert, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, Deana Carter, New Madrid, Dionne Warwick and Gillian Welch. Mumford & Sons, Ratdog and Bob Weir are also known to cover this song from time to time. Additional notable versions are by Hoyt Axton, Lee Ann Womack, the band Smith, Weezer, The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Jimmy Barnes with The Badloves, Free Wild, and Aaron Pritchett.
On record, folk singer Michelle Shocked covers the song as part of her 2007 gospel album ToHeavenURide. Charly García covered the song in Spanish under the title "El Peso," and Czech singer Marie Rottrová covered the song with the band Flamingo in 1970. Jeff Healey covered it on his album Mess of Blues in 2008. Jensen Ackles also covered a portion of the song along with Jason Manns in 2010.
Conan O'Brien performed the song as an encore during his The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who were honoring a fan's sign request, performed "The Weight" at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on May 2, 2012, as a tribute to Levon Helm, who had died two weeks before. It was the first time the band had ever performed the song. Springsteen called Helm "one of the greatest, greatest voices in country, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll ... staggering ... while playing the drums. Both his voice and his drumming were so incredibly versatile. He had a feel on the drums that comes out of certain place in the past and you can't replicate it." Springsteen also joked that when he was auditioning drummer Max Weinberg he made him sing.
A rendition of "The Weight" was performed at the 55th Grammy Awards by various artists including Elton John, Zac Brown, Mumford and Sons, Mavis Staples, and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes as a tribute to Levon Helm and other deceased artists.
"The Weight" was traditionally the last song played during the Midnight Rambles in Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock, New York, often including the guest musicians for the evening's festivities.
Garth Brooks for the 2013 "The Melting Pot" album in the "Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences" compilation.
"The Weight" was performed by Jimmy Fallon and The Muppets in the closing moments of the final episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on February 7, 2014. The performance (which mirrored the arrangement and staging of the Band's performance of the song with the Staple Singers in The Last Waltz) featured several notable Muppet characters including Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, and ended with Fallon walking out of the Late Night studio, down the hall, and into the new studio of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
"The Weight" has been featured in a number of films and television shows – films featuring the song include Easy Rider; Hope Floats; Igby Goes Down (a cover version by Travis); The Big Chill; Girl, Interrupted; Patch Adams; 1408; andStarsky & Hutch (as a parody of the scene in Easy Rider). Television shows which have featured "The Weight" include Californication, My Name Is Earl, Sports Night, Cold Case, Chuck, and Saturday Night Live. The song has also been used in commercials for Diet Coke and Cingular/AT&T Wireless. "The Weight" was also covered by Sherie Rene Scott in the Broadway musical Everyday Rapture.
Due to contractual problems, The Band's version was used in the movie, but not the soundtrack for Easy Rider – included instead on the film's soundtrack was a cover (very closely resembling The Band's original) by Smith. In The Band's concert film, The Last Waltz, The Band perform the song with The Staple Singers. The song is also featured in two other of The Band's concert videos: The Band Is Back (1984) and The Band Live At The New Orleans Jazz Festival(1998). "The Weight" was one of three songs The Band's 1990s lineup performed for Let It Rock!, a birthday concert/tribute for Ronnie Hawkins. "The Weight" is one of three songs performed by The Band featured in the 2003 documentary film, Festival Express.
Paul McCartney makes a reference to the song during the fadeout section of the promo film version of "Hey Jude" when he sings "Take a load off Fanny/ Put it back on me." This originally aired in September on The David Frost Show, a mere two months after The Band had released Music from Big Pink in July.