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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"The Weight": sonically genre-melding and restrained, but thematically heavy indeed

Upon a close listen, the load-bearing in the chorus leads to a reconfiguring of the entire narrative and outlook of the tune.

I like days like these: productive and low-key. Given the stressors and deadlines so prevalent in college life, it's often the ideal sort of day to have.

In choosing a song for today, I sought tracks that reflected my calm, but resolved mood. That side of music isn't as flashy, but calmer musical tones often carry greater emotional weight. Through restraint, one creates a very different sort of power than they do through a more full, explosive expression. While it's often good for one's mental health to get out feelings in full, the practical truth is that such expression often isn't possible, and we must make do with holding back somewhat.

In my listening I made my way to the Band's Music from Big Pink (1968), an album with so many music influences from rock to folk and country to soul that Wikipedia simply lists the genre as 'Americana' — despite only one of its members at the time, the late drummer Levon Helm, being American (the rest were Canadian). At the end of the first side is the Band's most critically revered track, "The Weight," a song to which I've particularly been drawn as of late. In remaining sonically restrained the song generates greater emotional power, which is only furthered by the lyrics and their potential reference to a saga that dramatically changed the Band's views on themselves.

The song's varied influences are present right away. Robbie Robertson's opening guitar lick has the contour and tone of a delta blues opening, demonstrating influences of the greats like Robert Johnson. After Helm's drum fill, though, the Band settles into more of a country rock-type groove. The lower end of that groove is quite strong, likely because of pianist Richard Manuel mostly doubling Rick Danko's bass line.

Helm does the heavy lifting, though, as he takes lead vocals on "The Weight" in addition to drumming. His voice may be the most country-sounding thing about the tune, as his Arkansan accent permeates every word he sings. The country influences extend into his lyrics, which some argue are a sort of a biblical parable. The references to Nazareth, the Devil, Moses, and Luke are in plain sight, and once hearing them the question becomes how much the choice of names actually matters. Nazareth may very well be the Pennsylvania city where Martin guitars are made; the Devil could just be a bad friend with whom Carmen is going out, or even a good one who happens to have that nickname; the reference to Moses is tied in with the spiritual "Go Down Moses" (alternatively "Let My People Go"), thus referencing the Civil Rights Movement more than the story of the Edoxus; and Luke is often cited as being an early Band member.

If that's all the case, as it's sometimes cited to be, then there isn't anything purely biblical in the lyrics... and yet the influence remains, both on the surface level as mentioned above and in the overall narrative. The verses tie together to be about a man making his way through a town, asking for favors as he goes about his way. In all that, there's an air of a theme of salvation as the characters within whom the protagonist interacts do what they can for this person who happened to roll into town. They're taking his weight off him the best he can, despite not knowing him one bit.

When considering the chorus, it becomes clear that some of the figures in the song are references to people in Helm and the Band's life... and that the whole song is about passing along the burdens in one's life. "Fanny" is often regarded as a reference to Cathy Smith, a noted groupie who in her later life administered John Belushi his fatal overdose. Her initial notoriety came in her days following the Band, during which she and Helm, among others, were intimate. She ultimately became pregnant with a baby of undetermined parentage — Smith claimed Helm was the father, but he and the rest of the band were unsure. Manuel ultimately offered to marry her and take on the responsibility of father to the baby, but Smith declined, and the baby was ultimately adopted out.

If the theory that Fanny is Smith is accepted, then "The Weight" takes on a much heavier meaning, with the load being taken in the chorus possibly being a reference to fatherhood and responsibility. The Band's high-flying, freewheelin' days caught up to them in the paternity saga, and I hear their signature track as a reference to that chapter of reckoning in their lives. The favors being asked for in the verse may then be seen as helping pass the buck as the Band does what they can do assist Smith as they come to terms with the consequences of their prior conduct — heavy stuff, indeed, and appropriate for such a title.

It's striking how such a plaintive song may be sourced from such emotional drama, and what power may come from a potential incongruity between instrumental and semantic tone. As someone looking to get into songwriting and production myself, I hear songs like "The Weight" as valuable lessons in the craft, and I revere it for all the reasons I've described here and more.


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