There are musics I avoid writing about out of too much respect. It’s a sort of mental stuttering mechanism, I guess – I have so much to say that it all gets choked, like seven hyperactive adolescents trying to get on a bus all at once. Nonetheless, this week we’re going to take a whack at one of our very, very favorite pieces of music from a very specific angle, hoping to avoid that logjam.
The Band, “The Band”. AKA ‘The Brown Album’.
I guess there are people in the world for whom those words fail to resonate. But you flash that brown cover in front of any denizen of the Woodstock universe, and you’ll conjure the seminal moment when modern Western culture changed direction.
Before The Band you had Janis Joplin tearing out her heart piece by piece, Jimi Hendrix burning and smashing, and The Rolling Stones wreaking all sorts of mayhem.
And then you had “John Wesley Harding”, “The Basement Tapes” (in retrospect), “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band”. Acoustic, introspective, holy, humble, organic. Together they whispered a hushed “Stop.” Strap yourself to a tree with roots. Unplug. Get back to where you once belonged.
Every time I go into an organic supermarket I hear ‘Across the Great Divide’. Every time I see a family wearing cotton and riding bicycles I hear ‘Up on Cripple Creek’. Every time I just stop and concentrate on breathing clean air, I hear ‘Rockin’ Chair’.
A little background for those who weren’t there: The Band, comprised of four Canadians and an Arkansan, had been touring bars and clubs throughout rural North America for a dozen years as The Hawks when Bob Dylan picked them up to back his provocative shift from acoustic topical and poetic songs to raucous electrified loudness. For two entire years they ran, toured, took drugs and suffered booing from the audiences.
Then Dylan crashed his motorcyle and they retreated together to a Big Pink house in the Saugerties in upstate New York, playing very old and very new music in the basement, bootleg tapes of which began to leak out and were released officially only years later. Then Dylan recorded the seminal “John Wesley Harding” and The Band recorded their first album, “Music from Big Pink”, two albums that introduced an acoustic mindset to an entire generation.
Dylan went on to get weird (as is his wont) in “Nashville Skyline”. The Band toured extensively, now to cheers, and in 1969 stopped to record their masterpiece, one of the very finest works to come out of the greater Rock genre, “The Band”, or ‘The Brown Album’.
Flash forward. Their next album, “Stage Fright”, had several great cuts, but was mostly strained. They recorded four more studio albums together over the next eight years, none really worth remembering. In 1978, they gave themselves a good-bye bash, filmed by Scorcese, starring the Rock Hall of Fame. It’s their best-known work. Do yourselves a favor: go back to “The Band”, listen to it a thousand times, and discover more beauty and passion and grace in every successive listening. Let it enrich you.
Much has been written about the album’s cultural impact and aesthetic achievement. Eric Clapton heard it and decided on the spot that Cream’s music was no longer relevant. Elliott Landy’s photo shoot at Big Pink has become an integral visual correlative of the music of “The Band”. All the photos here are his.
Levon Helm: It was a complicated record. We wanted to make one that you didn’t really get until the second time you played it. Some of the songs, like “Rockin’ Chair”, sound like folks playing accordion and mandolin on the back porch of some farm… There was nothing normal about it. The title we had for the record was “Harvest”, because we were reaping this music from seeds that had been planted many years before we’d even been born. But we could have called it “America” as well, because this music was right out of the air. We were saying, “Listen! You can’t ignore this.”
For our SoTW, we’re going to pick on one of the utter gems, ‘Rockin’ Chair’. It’s ostensibly written (like most of the album) by Robbie Robertson, though other members of the band say they had a larger role in composing the songs than is indicated in the credits. Here’s a fascinating clip, Levon and producer John Simon and George Harrison and others talking about the recording of ‘Rocking Chair’, especially the vocals.
The song is the narrative of an old sailor longing to retire back to Virginia, to sit on the porch with his buddy Ragtime Willie. That’s all. Nothing too profound, you might say, and you’d be right, looking at it out of context. But set against the background of Vietnam and Altamont and “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away”, it spoke loudly and profoundly in its quiet simplicity: Hey. Stop. Look. Listen. Think. Embrace the world around you.
I think of The Band as the only rock group that achieves the internal richness of jazz. Rock is based on straightforward 4/4 tempo with the backbeat (1/2/3/4) conventionally driven into your ears by the drums (underscored by a bass and a rhythm guitar both playing the 4/4 rhythm). It’s a beat that makes you dance.
‘Rockin’ Chair’ employs in the verse an acoustic lead guitar, an acoustic rhythm guitar, a mandolin, an accordion, a fretless bass and Richard Manuel’s wonderful lead vocal. The chorus uses one acoustic guitar, the bass, the accordion and three voices in tight harmony. It should be noted that while their standard line-up was Robbie Robertson on guitar, Levon Helm on drums, Garth Hudson on keyboards, Richard Manuel on rhythm piano and Rick Danko on bass, they frequently rotated. Manuel would play drums while Levon played mandolin, etc. On this album, they all played honky-tonk horns.
If you tap your foot, you’ll have no trouble following the 4/4 rhythm. Put on your headphones and try to find what instrument is giving you that rhythm. Guess what? In much of the song, none. The rhythm is a function of the interplay between the instruments. Like in fine jazz. Music that respects space, air, silence. It’s an implicit beat that allows you to suck on your corncob pipe and watch the sun set slowly over the Shenandoah Mountains.
It’s miraculous, it’s mature. There’s no other rock music like it.
Here’s a video of a live performance of the song that shows how great the original is, in contrast. Compare the three elegant acoustic guitar riffs following the chorus in the original to Robbie’s obvious electric guitar here. Compare Richard Manuel’s lead vocal, so relaxed and authentic in the original, pushing just a bit too much here. Even Garth Hudson, who so rarely displays lapses in taste, tries too hard on the accordion in the live version.
The Band’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ grew from ‘Rocking Chair’ by Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981), one of the great composers of Standards, including ‘Stardust,’ ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ ‘Up the Lazy River,’ ‘The Nearness of You,’ ‘Heart and Soul,’ and ‘Skylark’ (here’s SoTW 195, all about the song), Here’s his 1930 version of ‘Rocking Chair’ with his 11-piece ‘orchestra’ including Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Benny Goodman, reeds; Gene Krupa, drum. Here’s his 1956 version, to which The Band’s version is much more closely akin. Just for fun, here’s Eric Clapton’s version.
Lest you miss the connection, the last line of The Band’s song is a quote from Hoagy’s (“Old rocking chair’s got me”). The Band wasn’t touting its own originality. On the contrary, it was touting its debt to The Tradition.
“The Band” had a profound timeliness for 1969. As Robbie Robertson said, “It felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners.” But it also has a purity and timelessness, a music that evokes respect for what went before, a modesty and gravitas and resonance rare in popular art. The album is a gift
Hang around, Willie boy, don’t you raise the sails anymore.
It’s for sure, I’ve spent my whole life at sea,
And I’m pushin’ age seventy three,
Now there’s only one place that was meant for me.
Oh, to be home again down in Old Virginny
With my very best friend, they call him ‘Ragtime Willie’.
We’re gonna soothe away the rest of our years,
We’re gonna put away all of our tears,
That big rockin’ chair won’t go nowhere
Slow down, Willie boy, your heart’s gonna give right out on you.
It’s true, and I believe I know what we should do
Turn the stern and point to shore
The seven seas won’t carry us no more
Hear the sound, Willie boy, the flyin’ Dutchman’s on the reef
It’s my belief, we’ve used up all our time
This hill’s to steep to climb
And the days that remain ain’t worth a dime
I can hear somethin’ callin’ on me
And you know where I want to be
Oh Willie don’t you hear that sound
Oh to be home again down in Old Virginny
I just want to get my feet back on the ground
Oh to be home again down in Old Virginny
I’d love to see my very best friend
They call him ‘Ragtime Willie’
I believe old rockin chair’s got me
Oh to be home again…
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes) 127: The Band, ‘Tears of Rage’ (“Music from Big Pink”) 049: Chrysalis (J. Spider Barbour), “Summer in Your Savage Eyes”, a fabulous tale about the house Big Pink.