What is your favorite song? Difficult question to answer. It may depend on your mood at that moment in time. Or, what you have been listening to recently. The answer to such a silly question can change with the setting of the sun, or the release of a new greatest hits collection. Though I can’t say I have a favorite song, I can’t help but to juggle possible answers to the question.
The answer I find myself with most often is “The Weight” by The Band.
I don’t remember the first time I heard “The Weight.” I don’t remember the first time this mythical song first resonated with me as something special, something more than just another song I would hear in rotation on classic rock radio.
I first discovered The Band during college. My friend Danny knew I liked Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and suggested I give The Band a try. I bought their first two albums, which I listened to carefully, deeply. I watched “The Last Waltz,” the Martin Scorsese documentary film about their last concert. I couldn’t get enough.
This band, The Band, was like nothing I have heard before. There was no clear leader of the group. Three of their five members regularly sang lead vocals on songs that sounded like they could have been sung around the campfire during the civil war. The songs were mostly all written by lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, and everyone in the group came from Canada except for drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.
They were first The Hawks, the backing group for Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960’s. After touring from 1965-1967 as Bob Dylan’s band, they retreated to a rented big pink house in upstate New York where they worked on their own songs. Things were quieter, and it was in that quiet that they became a cohesive group of collaborators and co-creators.
“That was just part of a life style that we got to love at Woodstock. You know, we got to like it, you know, just being, eh, being able to chop wood or hit your thumb with a hammer. We’d be concerned with fixin’ a tape recorder and fixin’ a screen door, you know, and stuff like that and getting the songs together.” Garth Hudson
“The Weight” is the last song on the first side of Music from Big Pink, The Band’s first album. It begins with a deceptively complex acoustic guitar intro, accented by the soft, lush strikes of Levon Helm’s drums. Levon sings.
“I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey, mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said.”
The man has no name, but he is looking for respite, escape. He finds none. Every verse brings new distractions, new responsibilities.
“I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walking side by side
I said, “Hey, Carmen, c’mon, let’s go downtown”
She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”
In his excellent 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire, Levon Helm wrote “I read somewhere a few years ago that Robbie said “The Weight” was about the impossibility of sainthood. Well I’ve sung that song enough times to agree with him.”
The chorus is a simple plea. Two lines, sung to Fanny, whoever Fanny is.
“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me.”
Levon and bassist Rick Danko trade off verses, each telling the story of an encounter with another character in Nazareth. Carmen and The Devil, Miss Moses, Crazy Chester. Each encounter takes the narrator farther away from where he wants to be. Each encounter adds more weight.
Finally, in the last verse, he hops on a train to take him back home. There is a palpable sense of relief, because home is where he will truly find the solace and and sainthood he has been looking for.
I could write about “The Weight” for pages and pages. There is so much to say. But ultimately, this is a perfect song because this song makes me feel good. When I hear “The Weight”, I smile. I remember the first time I saw The Band perform “The Weight” with The Staple Singers in The Last Waltz. I remember listening to “The Weight” with my family, and I remember the time I got to see Levon Helm perform the song live with his Midnight Ramble band and John Hiatt.
“The Weight” is a perfect song, because it is perfect to me.
“The Weight” from The Last Waltz
“The Weight” from Ramble at the Ryman
Written by Robbie Robertson
Performed by The Band
Released August, 1968