There are a number of songs that serve as a musical roadmap in my life, and for every one of them, I can remember the exact moment when I heard the song – the exact moment that the song made me stop in my tracks, grab the record sleeve, look at the album photos and read the liner notes in a desperate attempt to learn everything I could about the music.
And, yet, I have no recollection of the first time that I heard the song which may have had the greatest influence on my life, because for as long as I can remember, “The Weight,” has always just been in my life. Like any song that’s morphed into our musical vernacular, “The Weight” has come to exist as a backdrop in American folk culture. It pops up in films when the scene is meant to express something uniquely “American” that dialog just can’t seem to capture. It’s become a staple in concert encore-sing-alongs across the country, and a simple YouTube search of “The Weight” yields thousands of videos with genre-bending covers by everyone from Dionne Warwick to John Denver.
Unlike traditional American songs, however, where there is often a vague understanding of where and when the song originated, or how it has changed over time, the origin of “The Weight” isn’t nearly as mythic and mysterious as what it has come to represent. And, unlike traditional songs where the original recording is either archived in a museum somewhere – if there even is a recording – or forgotten, having instead been left for other musicians to immortalize its legacy, “The Weight” is uniquely contemporary, with the original recording still widely accessible to the masses and still accepted as the incomparable version of the song.
Maybe I can’t remember the first time I heard “The Weight,” because every time I hear the Music From Big Pink recording, I still feel the music shake deep in my soul, like it’s the first time I’m hearing the song in full – like I haven’t yet heard all that there is to hear. In a great musical paradox, as “old” and “traditional” as “The Weight” sounded in 1968 set against the flaming guitars of the San Francisco counterculture, there was a genuine newness to the blending and layered sounds of “The Weight” that no band had ever captured before. Robbie Robertson’s acoustic chords opening the song, Levon Helm’s wooden drums starting the pulse, followed by his slow, southern-accented first verse, Richard Manuel’s plaintive harmony vocals, Rick Danko’s steady bass and Garth Hudson’s church piano setting up the chorus’ crescendo created something unmistakably original, unmistakably authentic and unmistakably American. This was unmistakably The Band, and they would change the course of American music, as we knew it.
By now it’s well known that The Band was four Canadians held together by an Arkansas drummer. They started out backing Ronnie Hawkins and later, Bob Dylan, before becoming their own group – a musical collective of multi-instrumentalists with a seemingly endless archive of obscure characters, road stories and survival tales acquired from playing years in clubs so rough you “had to puke twice and show them your knife before you could get in,” as Levon Helm once said.
The Canadians learned about America through its music. Delta blues radio, Nashville country stations and the traveling rockabilly shows that swept through Canada in the late 1950s reinforced themes of outlaw individualism, frontier living and a land where diverse music didn’t just coexist, but coalesced and thrived in the backbone of the country. When they met Levon Helm, a teenage cotton farmer who lived near Sonny Boy Williamson and played drums for Hawkins, it was as though he had come straight from Mecca, as Robbie Robertson has said. His sheer existence legitimized the possibilities of an unknown land.
This mythic lens into America led to a catalog of songs which have become musical precursors to the Americana movement today: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In” and, of course, “The Weight.” I’ve found myself wondering lately, out of all of these songs – and many others – why has “The Weight” emerged as the iconic American standard? Why is this the mood-setting song in Easy Rider? Why is this the song that 22 year-olds still put on when they start their first road trips across the country? Why, since Levon Helm’s passing nearly a year ago, do Americana musicians overwhelmingly close their shows with “The Weight”? Why did the GRAMMY Awards choose “The Weight” as its group sing-along for the musicians we lost this year – and why was it the only performance of the night that had everyone in the audience singing and dancing?
I’ve struggled over the past month to determine an answer to these questions. I followed the lyrics, first – the idea that they read like a traditional folktale with a cast of characters like Crazy Chester, Anna Lee, Luke, Carmen, Miss Moses and Miss Fanny who we can all envision in our lives. I then thought about the ethical theme: the narrator facing a libertarian dilemma of holding true to his nomadic lifestyle or staying put to deliver on the favor he promised to take a “load off” his neighbor in need. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that while this all may contribute to the place of “The Weight” in American culture, the answer more likely lay simply in the music.
In 1968, “The Weight” was a rock song, but since then, Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman have shown us that it’s an R&B song; Mavis Staples has shown us that it’s a gospel song; Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show have shown us that it’s a bluegrass song; Waylon Jennings has shown us that it’s a country song; Weezer has shown us that it’s an alternative song; Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield have shown us that it’s a blues song; and Cassandra Wilson has shown us that it’s a jazz song. In the past 44 years, “The Weight” has lent itself to nearly every cultural context and musical genre in this country because it is infinitely singable. Like all great traditional songs, there’s nothing so esoteric about “The Weight” that makes it unattainable to the audience, and it has a chorus that allows us to all sing our own small part in a much bigger song.
The beauty of countless versions of “The Weight” is what’s shared among them: despite the musical form the song has taken, everybody in the audience sings along, and everybody sings along together. If Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson first came to understand American music through the joy and release that Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm imparted to Canadian audiences in the early 1960s, then “The Weight,” has forever come to represent this same celebration of American music – of its spirit, its diversity, its soul and most importantly, it’s universality.