An introduction to a timeless treasure …

Art is the expression of the human condition – literature, painting and music have formed the human diary since the dawn of civilisation. From small to large, from a tiny aspect to a great form, in its premier emanations, art speaks to us directly, explaining individual or common experiences – sometimes rising to evoke in us a picture of the past that is the perfect personification of the artist’s intention and at the same time a symbol as well as an explanation.

Every work of art, by its nature, must be a condensation of the aspects the artist wants to address. The greatest works of art we do know, however, are characterized that in addition to the glimpse of the time and place it was created, they speak to us in greater words, talk about the basic motives and inescapable complications of the human condition – of love and hate, loneliness and identity, war and peace, joy and sorrow.

That is why the great works of art – the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Dramas, Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the incomparable genius of Mozart, the Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Therese, the Pieta and Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, the paintings of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer, speak of more than what they contain at first sight – they personify our human life, the dreariness of existence, the hope of salvation, sometimes the glory of a perfect moment in time and space.

In this blog entry, however, we will talk of popular music – by its nature, in general, a more ephemeral form of art. Disregarding the much less common instrumentals, we are talking here of songs – “Lieder” in German – one of the oldest forms of human art. Songs have been sung at all times, from the neolithic hunter to the labourer on pyramids, from the troubadour of the Middle Ages to the soldier marching to battle, but the form really took off with the invention of polyphony, which allowed greater harmonic expansion and advanced accompaniment.

Although the exact origins of polyphony in the Western church traditions are unknown, the treatises Musica enchiriadis and Scolica enchiriadis, both dating from c. 900, are usually considered the oldest extant written examples of polyphony. These treatises provided examples of two-voice note-against-note embellishments of chants using parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths. Rather than being fixed works, they indicated ways of improvising polyphony during performance. The Winchester Troper, from c. 1000, is the oldest extant example of notated polyphony for chant performance, although the notation does not indicate precise pitch levels or durations

The development of the Hammerklavier or Fortepiano, an early form of piano, gave the singer(s) a polyphonic instrument to accompany him, her or them, which, contrary to the harpsichord or “Cembalo”, was able of a dynamic range of notes, muted or loud, and of sustained notes, and was much louder than the guitar and could reach a greater auditorium. Soon this was picked up by great composers, starting in Germany and Austria with Mozart and Beethoven, and brought to an early prime by Franz Schubert.

The beginnings of this tradition are seen in the songs of Mozart and Beethoven, but it was with Schubert that a new balance was found between words and music, a new expression of the sense of the words in and through the music. Schubert wrote over 600 songs, some of them in sequences or song cycles that relate an adventure of the soul rather than the body. The tradition was continued by Schumann, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf, and on into the 20th century by Strauss, Mahler, and Pfitzner. Composers of atonal music, such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, also composed lieder. The lied tradition is closely linked with the German language, but there are parallels elsewhere, notably in France, with the mélodies of such composers as Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy, and Francis Poulenc, and in Russia, with the songs of Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff in particular. England too had a flowering of song, more closely associated, however, with folk songs than with art songs, as represented by Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, and Gerald Finzi

This gave rise to the art song, mostly written by professional composers. Yet, naturally, traditionals and folk songs complemented the repertoire of the singer since times immemorial. Work songs, military songs, farm songs, children songs and love songs were sung in every society. Often, well-known melodies were underlaid with new texts, something that, in the spread of Christianity, regularly happened to church songs.

Standard European-style polyphony, however, experienced an important and popular amelioration by the influx of African slaves, who were prominent in the southern parts of the USA. Their traditional African tribal songs did not follow European harmonics or Major and Minor Scales – indeed, they tended to use slightly different pitches than European music allowed, not following the diatonic steps. These were soon called “Blue Notes”. English and Irish folk music had known them before, but then, who knew?

The blue notes are usually said to be the lowered third, lowered fifth, and lowered seventh scale degrees. The lowered fifth is also known as the raised fourth. Though the blues scale has “an inherent minor tonality, it is commonly ‘forced’ over major-key chord changes, resulting in a distinctively dissonant conflict of tonalities”

Blue notes were quickly employed outside the black community by songwriters and composers looking for new sounds, especially in the more rural areas of the South and the West, where the origins lay of what would become known as the “Blues” and later “Country” and “Western” music.

Local music, as opposed to the expensive use of orchestras, which remained typical for western “Classical” Music, was performed with whatever was at hand, guitars, the saloon piano, military drums and especially reed and wind instruments, flutes, trumpets, trombones and the like, who were cheaper, transportable and easy-to-use.

And then it all came together, especially in New Orleans, amidst the catastrophe of the Great War, in a blend of African and European musical sensibilities. They called it “Jazz”.

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. … It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. … New Orleans jazz began in the early 1910s, combining earlier brass-band marches, French quadrilles, biguine, ragtime and blues with collective polyphonic improvisation. In the 1930s, heavily arranged dance-oriented swing big bands, Kansas City jazz, a hard-swinging, bluesy, improvisational style and Gypsy jazz (a style that emphasized musette waltzes) were the prominent styles. Bebop emerged in the 1940s, shifting jazz from danceable popular music toward a more challenging “musician’s music” which was played at faster tempos and used more chord-based improvisation. Cool jazz developed near the end of the 1940s, introducing calmer, smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines.

“Jazz” became the original music style of the USA, although it was soon playing all over the world. Broadly, it covered everything including deeply intense black blues emotion, cheesy white dance music, film and love songs, ragtime piano players and the lonesome cowboy strumming his guitar, and, because Jazz never accepted stylistic borders or European rigidity of composition practises, eventually all the various elements interacted and fertilized each other. The role of improvisation was rediscovered and allowed the player to escape the strictures of note for note reproduction of another man’s work.

But then something happened, and it happened to the guitar – in its various forms and predecessors one of the oldest musical instruments known to man. These chordophones had a long history indeed, reaching back to Homer’s times. The “Kithara” (Greek) appears four times in the Bible, and stringed instruments are known since the Hittites and Babylonians, in Europe mostly as “lutes” and “ouds”. The form and structure of the modern guitar then arose around 1850 in Spain, usually credited to Spanish master guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado.

Versatile and polyphonic as the guitar was, it had a drawback – it was simply not very loud. Although the old masters had written for it, or adapted older works, it remained an instrument for the intimate setting. Jazz had important guitarists from the get-go, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery; yet they fought constant losing battles with the sheer wall of sound of brass and drums.

That is until Wisconsin-born Lester William Polsfuss – later known as Les Paul – set out to change music forever. He had been a great fan and friend of Django Reinhardt and began to tinker.

Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, New York with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of “The Log”, which was a length of common 4×4 lumber with a bridge, neck, strings, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.
In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who arranged for Bourgerie to have one made for him.

Another tinkerer named Leo Fender was much on the same road and around the end of the 1940s, the basic ideas of the solid-body electric guitar, powered by a pickup and amplifier took shape enough that prototypes emerged. In 1950, Fender presented his “Esquire” model – which later evolved into the famous “Telecaster” guitar, the icon of Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards. It was followed from 1954 on by the possibly even more iconic Stratocaster, played by Jimi Hendrix and Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow.

Les Paul meanwhile, after some ups and downs, finally found success with the Gibson guitar company, for which he designed the model that was graced with his name, the Les Paul Guitar, one of the iconic instruments of Rock n’ Roll – made famous by Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Slash.

With the help of amplifiers, the modern electric solid-body guitar is as loud as desired, and the clever use of amplifiers – feedback, overdrive, sustain – and electronic effects – wah-wah, flanger, echo, fuzz-box, delays – created sounds never heard before. The genius of Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the sounds of Rock n’ Roll.

Rock n’ Roll had begun in the USA from the late 1940s to the early 1950s from …

… musical styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues, and country music. While elements of what was to become rock and roll can be heard in blues records from the 1920s and in country records of the 1930s, the genre did not acquire its name until 1954.

While no single “first” rock and roll record can be identified, as elements like a simplified blues scheme, the first power chords, distorted electric guitar solos with warm overtones created by small valve amplifiers, call and response structures, verse, bridge and chorus distinctions and a heavy beat were used to various effect in records from the late 1940s on, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is still recognizable as probably the first of what we call today “rock” records – in particular, the remarkable guitar opening riff and the hammering beat. The song is still ranked in the Top Ten on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time

One of the early stars of Canadian Rock n’ Roll was Arkansas-born Ronnie Hawkins (“The Hawk”), a key player in the rock scene of Toronto in the early 1960s. He formed his own backing band, “The Hawks”, and toured with them throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Hawkins also owned and operated the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, where some of rock and roll‘s earliest pioneers came to play, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty. The drummer of the Hawks’ first line-up was the barely eighteen-years-old Arkansas boy Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm. In 1961, he met Canadian bass player Rick Danko at a recording session for Lennie Breau.

In the fall of 1961, Hawkins hired – for the second line up of the Hawks -guitarist Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and the keyboard men Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, all of them Canadians from south-western Ontario. This second line-up gigged through 1963 until it broke up in 1964. The former Hawks then performed initially as the Levon Helm Sextet, then as the Canadian Squires and finally as Levon and the Hawks and played in nearly every beer bar in northern America. A planned collaboration with bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson in 1965 failed because of the blues singer’s death. But then destiny intervened.

In August 1965, Mary Martin, an assistant to Bob Dylan‘s manager Albert Grossman, heard the music of the group, then known as Levon and the Hawks. Grossman introduced the band’s music to Dylan, who was impressed. The group was performing at Tony Mart’s, a popular club in Somers Point, New Jersey, and Grossman’s office called the club to speak with Levon and the group about touring with Dylan.
Helm was not happy to be backing a “strummer” but reluctantly agreed, and the band became Dylan’s backup group for a tour beginning in September. The tour, however, became too much for Helm, who departed in November. Through May 1966, Dylan and the remaining foursome (together with pick-up drummers, including the actor and musician Mickey Jones) travelled across America, Australia, and Europe. After the final shows in England, Dylan retreated to his new home in Woodstock, New York, and the Hawks joined him there shortly thereafter
Bob Dylan and the Band live 1974

In this summer of 1966 or a bit later, Rick Danko found the pink house on Parnassus Lane in Saugerties, New York, which became known as Big Pink. Between June and October 1967, everybody met there and Bob Dylan and the band recorded what was later to become famous as the Basement Tapes. Yet these songs were only published, much later, in 1975, because Dylan – after his 1966 motorcycle accident – went upon an extensive period of recovery and wasn’t seen in public until 1971’s George Harrison‘s Concert for Bangladesh.

The Basement Tapes

The Basement Tapes thus on ice, Levon returned to the group in October and from January to March 1968 they recorded the first album of their own, naming themselves simply “The Band”, which was released later in 1968 on Capitol Records.

The album – “Music from Big Pink” – sold only so-so, but was critically acclaimed by music press and musicians alike worldwide. In Rolling Stone, Al Kooper gave it a rave review, and Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd praised it wholeheartedly. The single “The Weight” earned popularity on account of its inclusion on the popular motion picture “Easy Rider“. In 2003, the album was ranked number 34 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list. No other band was more reported on ever in Rolling Stone Magazine, not even the Beatles, and perhaps no other band has a comparable internet archive – see

The complete “Music from Big Pink” on YouTube

It was strange music, far away from the flashy sound of the sixties, the experiments of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, laid back – some called it boring – old-fashioned, unpretentious, the sound you might hear in your local beer bar from an amateur band. But then it stuck – the old-fashioned songs had their own, unobtrusive way of growing on you – the odd line that seemed familiar, proverbs and adages you might have heard in childhood from your mom or grandfather, allusions on the Bible and Sunday preachings, striking and funny observations, remembrances of your high school sweetheart – in their unobtrusive way, the music formed a picture of the past, of growing up in rural, white America. Glimpses of family life, love and sorrow, war and peace, the all-encompassing microcosm that, in the end, forms a human life.

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside and put us all away
Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun could treat a father so?
To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him “No”

The band, “Tears of Rage” from “Music from Big pink”

Ten years ago, on a cool dark night
There was someone killed ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, and they all did agree
That the man who ran looked a lot like me

The judge said “Son, what is your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die”
I spoke not a word, although it meant my life
I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave where the night winds wail
Nobody knows, no, and nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

the Band “long black veil” from “Music from Big Pink”

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “All You Need is Love” or “Purple Haze” was one thing, but here was real life, brutal, sad, hard work, disappointment and frustration, glimpses of luck overshadowed by clouds – everyone could relate to it. And then there was … “The Weight”.

I pulled in to 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
And “No” was all he said

the band, “The weight”, from “Music from big pink”

The single sold OK but not great, but everybody heard the song on “Easy Rider” – a strange amalgamation of scenes reminding of biblical allegories, western life similes and plain nonsense, wide-open spaces for interpretation. And indeed, dozens of books have discussed this magic potion. Peter Viney, one of the great writers and historians of Rock and Roll, devoted much of his time to the analysis of the Band’s great songs, and here is his introduction on “The Weight”:

Peters Viney’s Music Blog

Robbie Robertson:
(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.

Peter Viney:

The Weight has been painting pictures for me for over thirty-five years now; it’s an intensely visual song, and my pictures aren’t of anywhere in Pennsylvania. My Nazareth is a dusty western town sometime in the late 19th century. Neighbouring towns might be called Jerusalem or Babylon … or Jericho (which was a deliberate reference in the Band’s comeback album title in 1993). Carmen and the devil are strutting their stuff in red silk dresses, fringed with black cat fur, along a wooden sidewalk. Chester is the town character straight out of the TV series Gunsmoke which was set in Dodge City in the 1880s. Gunsmoke ran from 1955 to 1975 and was the archetypal TV western. Chester Goode was the name of the deputy marshal in the series who spent his time limping rapidly along the dusty main street dragging his ramrod-stiff gammy leg. In the TV series, Chester had a catch-phrase. As he limped after the town marshal, Matt Dillon, he used to shout out ‘Marshall Dillon!’, ‘Marshall Dillon!’ (Marshall Dylan! Marshall Dylan?). Carmen might be the programme’s Miss Kitty, who owned the Longbranch Saloon – a tart with a heart. Old Luke’s another town character (not from the TV series this time) whose rockin’ chair ain’t goin’ nowhere, as he puffs his pipe waiting on the judgement day. The Cannonball steams into the station, a great cow-catcher across the front. Pure Americana…

Yet one year later, they upped the ante, and published in 1969 a very low-key album in a brown cover without a title except for their name, knows simply as “The Band” or “The Brown Album”.

Music from Big Pink had been a fine, even superior debut; The Band was their masterpiece. Robbie Robertson’s songwriting had grown by leaps and bounds. As players, all five musicians had reached a completely new level of ensemble cohesion. The sum was very much greater than the parts, and the parts were as good as any that existed. The album’s single, “Up on Cripple Creek,” became the Band’s first and only Top 30 release. It was one of several songs on the album that had an “old-timey” feel. Other highlights on this masterpiece include “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “King Harvest.”
Rob Bowman, All-Music Guide

“The Band” (The Brown Album) on YouTube

Perhaps no other work of art, with the possible exception of “Gone with the Wind” (in spite of its thematic and historic limitations) has embodied the rural (white) American existence so closely – the blueprints of the American way of life: Go west, young man [“Across the Great Divide” and “When You Awake”] – the road and the longing for a home [Up On Cripple Creek” and “Whispering Pines”] – an old man’s memories [“Rockin’ Chair”] – farming and unions, the drudge of the weather and false promises [“King Harvest (has surely come)”] – snapshots of life, joy and sorrow, the human condition.

But even on this panoply of genuine Americana, two songs stand out – one that everybody knows, yet the other remains virtually unknown. We start with the famous one – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” …

Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well

Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best

Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “La, la, la”

THe band, “the night they drove old dixie down”

Ralph Gleason
Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.
[Ralph Gleason, original review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) October 1969]

Jonathan Taplin (quoted by Robert Palmer)
It was May and they’d just finished it the night before. They said it’d come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I’d had for, God, I don’t know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who’d been involved in the Civil Rights movement and had a whole attitude towards the South, well I loved the music but I didn’t understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things … Well, the next day after I’d recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him, “How did that come out of you?” And he just said that being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time … It was so inside him that he wanted to write the song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him.
[Quoted in Robert Palmer “A Portrait of The Band As Young Hawks”, Rolling Stone, 1 June 1978]

Chet Flippo
The fact that (Dixie) was written by a Canadian – Robbie – is all the more telling. Looking in from outside he could see more than most already inside just looking around.

Again and again, commentators have pointed to the novelty of expressing a Southern point of view about the Civil War. In 1969 a negative view of the traditional South dominated among young Americans. The South brought images of the Civil Rights struggle, the death of Medgar Evers, corrupt politicians like Huey Long and LBJ, the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, the murder of Martin Luther King, fiery Ku Klux Klan crosses. Even today, Southern voices are deliberately avoided on most tapes and programs used for teaching American English to foreigners, or for reading the national news, and there is still a degree of antipathy in the North. Robbie has mentioned his love affair with the South. His distance – the fact that he was Canadian – helped. The British, for example, have always held a blinkered, romantic view of the Southern states. Maybe this was bolstered by Gone With The Wind, maybe it dates back to the Civil War itself, when the British government gave covert support to the Confederacy, inspired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This was somewhat odd, as the British Empire had banned slavery thirty years earlier, and in industrial districts workers identified with the Northern cause. The British ruling class identified with “Southern aristocrats”. Politics are about taking the main chance, and it’s fair to say that the British government of 1861 to 1865 was far from adverse to a possible break-up of the Union, principally on the grounds of self-interest. France felt much the same, and was stirring the shit in Mexico throughout the Civil War. Napoleon III suggested to Britain that they jointly recognize the CSA. Then the French made Maximilian their puppet Emperor of Mexico. He got shot. Spain was messing in Santo Domingo with similar intentions. A positive image of the South was considerably less surprising in Britain and France, and as a result in Canada, too. [Chet Flippo, liner notes to the ‘Across The Great divide” box set.]

Many fans and critics have seen the song as illumination, or an invitation to see the other side – perhaps for the first time. The chorus strikingly contrasts southern anger, sadness and feeling of loss with the joyous reaction of the winner – the Yankees. History and feelings of the civil war depicted in three sad and glorious minutes – we hear you, Shakespeare.

There is an amazing article on on how the civil war shaped country music – link.

While being a stroke of genius, which the song undoubtedly represents, some, including the present author, argue that another, almost forgotten song, may stand on a comparable level. It evokes in vivid pictures the other great story of the South – involuntary servitude – slavery and serfdom – or does it? It bears the title “The Unfaithful Servant”,

Unfaithful servant, I hear you’re leavin’ soon in the mornin’
What did you do to the lady, that she’s gonna have to send you away?
Unfaithful servant, you don’t have to say you’re sorry
If you done it just for the spite, or did you do it just for the glory?
Like a stranger you turned your back
Left your keep and gone to pack
But bear in mind who’s to blame for all the shame
She really cared
The time she spared
And the home you shared

Unfaithful servant, I can hear the whistle blowin’
Yes, that train is a-comin’ and soon you’ll be a-goin’
Need us not bow our heads, for we won’t be complainin’
Life has been good to us all, even when that sky is rainin’
To take it like a grain of salt
Is all I can do and it’s no one’s fault
It makes no diff’rence if we fade away
It’s just as it was
And it’s much to cold for me to stay

Goodbye to that country home, so long, lady I have known
Farewell to my other side, I’d best just take it in stride
Unfaithful servant, you’ll learn to find your place
I can see it in your smile, and, yes, I can see it in your face
The mem’ries will linger on
But the good old days, they’re all gone
Oh, lonesome servant, can’t you see
We’re still one and the same
Just you and me

the band, “The unfaithful servant”

Now, this is wide to interpretation, but after some hundreds of interviews, Robbie Robertson has finally made clear that, yes, it is about a Mistress (with a capital M) and a servant, so a lot of speculation on the exact relations and lots of sexual innuendoes has been put to rest.

Peter Viney has a lot to say about it:

The song is brilliant at generating assumptions. Let’s ask some questions. Try answering them without pondering too hard. I’ve used the word ‘screwing’ which has rather mechanical connotations, but some people are offended by Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, and ‘making love’ sounds like romantic fiction, and ‘having intercourse’ like a medical textbook. If you don’t like the term try not to let it get in the way.

Let your picture of the song bring out your answers, but do it quickly:

  • Where does it take place?
  • When does it take place?
  • Is the servant male or female?
  • Is there a sexual element in the relationship?
  • If so, is the servant screwing or being screwed? (i.e. the instigator or the recipient)
  • Is the relationship with the ‘lady’ or with the narrator?
  • Is the narrator a separate entity to the servant?
  • What’s the transgression?

I would think most people could give off the cuff answers. If I’d done it fast a while ago, without referring to the lyrics I’d have answered:

  • Rural area. Large house. Mansion with white portico, somewhere in the south.
  • Not recently. Train whistles are blowing. So post Civil War (probably). I’d think Faulkner. 1920s to 1940s.
  • Male (?)
  • Yes
  • Screwing
  • the lady
  • yes
  • The servant had a relationship and told tales, bringing shame.

Then look at the lyrics or give it a listen. This is what I come up with.

  • Absolutely no textual or musical evidence for the south. Try seeing a wooden Gothic mansion in rural New England. Or an isolated farmhouse in the west, with the hired hand being sent packing. It still works just as well. I think people tend to see it as the south because it leads so beautifully into King Harvest. It could also be that the blowsiness of the horns conjures up a steamy Southern atmosphere.
  • A writer using a modern setting might choose a Greyhound bus in preference to a train. Trains will take you back as far as the Civil War. I still think I’m right about the early 20th century. I’d dismiss the idea that it takes place very early on. It’s a servant who goes and packs and leaves. This rules out either a slave or an indentured servant.
  • Zero evidence for a male servant either. Barney Hoskyns says ‘his mistress’ but the servant could be female. In which case the relationship between the servant (who comes in on Goodbye to that country home, Farewell to a lady I have known… ) and the narrator is the sexual one. Say the servant was a ladies maid, and that the shame was an affair with the narrator? What she did to the lady was betray her trust. There is a deep link between the narrator and the servant: Let us not bow our heads, for we won’t be complaining … note that, us / our / we. And it makes no difference if we fade away. The intriguing end is that we’re still one and the same, just you and me which might indicate one voice in two aspects; or might mean that narrator and servant are now a couple. If the servant is female, then it’s the narrator who is also the “unfaithful” one, in the ‘infidelity’ sense. They are both unfaithful servants, they are one and the same.

The narrator is also involved with the lady; he is a lover, husband or son which means that he and the servant are retreating together, and in spite of the regrets he sings I can see it in your smile, which would be a knowing, conspiratorial smile. []

Yet it all might be very different, as Pat Brennan argues:

A Robbie Robertson songbook published with a ton of his input claims the song is written in the voice of a “master bidding goodbye to the servant with whom he’s had an affair’. So this makes the narrator the master, and the servant someone who has offended the mistress, by having an affair with the master. Pat’s quote indicates that the servant is female, cuts out son/brother/ lover as possibilities (and answers most of the questions). After reading this quote (when I thought I’d finished) I had to go back and remove several maybes, mights and possiblies!

  • Even if you persist with a male servant, he may or may not have been screwing the lady. unfaithful can mean betraying trust in a general sense, or in a more limited sense refer to sexual infidelity. I don’t read it in a limited sense. The implication is general I’m sure, though that does not rule out a specific sexual transgression. A lady I have known could be “known” as in the bible. Or it could simply mean that the lady was not a remote figure, but a friend who shared her home. In any case, we don’t know who is the instigator, the lady or the servant. The lady is in the position of power over a male servant (Come here, young man …). A female servant would have had a relationship with the narrator. In both cases, there is a figure who holds power, and one who is exploited.
  • Already answered above. It could, of course, be both. Or either. Helpful.
  • You can argue this one. Danko sings the whole thing. Given The Band’s taste for switching voices, you’d have expected them to bring in Richard for the first person section. They don’t. I’m trying not to be crass, many songwriters have switched narrative voices within a song without changing vocalists. It’s just that The Band were heavily into switching at this time. The servant could be addressing herself/himself in the third person elsewhere, and switching to first-person here. Then “We’re still one and the same” becomes a knowing audio “wink” to the listener. Or if the narrator and the servant are in a sexual relationship, they are joined both physically and in their intent.
  • Theft? (and why not?) Screwing the lady’s husband/lover/brother/son and being caught? Or boasting about it? Screwing the lady and telling all and sundry? I think we’re seeing the same concerns which surfaced in The Rumor, those of gossip, saying too much, and thus betrayal. The servant was in a trusted position. The servant lived in the house and held keys (or even the main keys). They shared a home. A home, not a house. The sin and the shame would be the result of airing whatever was going on to public view. This is clear in the line or did you do it just for the glory? The glory was boasting about it, telling all.

In the end, it’s an enigma (what an easy let out). Whatever, Robertson’s sense of time lends the story of this particular eternal triangle a sense of dignity and regret. Compare a headline like ‘Rock star screws babysitter’ or ‘Rock star has affair with cleaner’ which would be an inevitably sordid modern-day version! []

What if the whole thing is a lesbian affair? Who knows …

Is “The Band”, as Barney Hoskyns argued, in its thematic tightness and historical congruity perhaps a “concept album”? If it was, Unfaithful Servant stands out like an almost film-like scene …

Peter Viney on Barney Hoskyns:
If The Band as a ‘concept album’ can be said to take place in or around some imaginary country town, then The Unfaithful Servant is definitely set in the ‘mansion on the hill’, a Southern household of the kind Robbie had read about in the plays of Tennessee Williams. … the overall effect was pure American Gothic.
I’d never thought of The Band as a concept album (whether in Hoskyns inverted commas or not) nor that it took place in one imaginary town, but The Unfaithful Servant does conjure up the mansion, not necessarily on the hill, which is as much a feature of Faulkner as of Tennessee Williams. Williams’ plays had been made into films (e.g. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof ) and Robbie talks about his passion for the movies predating his passion for books at the age of 19 (Robbie mentions Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway as his reading matter in one interview and Tennessee Williams in another). Whatever, we all know this classic story setting, ‘The Big House’ which runs through American folklore from Faulkner through Gone With The Wind to more recent 1990s manifestations like the movie Driving Miss Daisy or John Berendt’s non-fiction novel Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil. It has been cited as a further Civil War period song, but there’s no internal evidence. Williams and Faulkner are 20th century manifestations that fit just as well. Melodically it harks back to Tears of Rage with a similar sense of nameless guilt in the lyrics. There is also a similarity with It Makes No Difference – similar in the way that say Elton John’s or Randy Newman’s songs are immediately recognizable as their compositions. There’s a lyric link too: “Makes no difference if we fade away … “(The Unfaithful Servant) – “It makes no difference, night or day, The shadow never seems to fade away” (It Makes No Difference).

Concept album or (rather) not, “The Band” remains one of the great albums of Rock music.

The album includes many of the Band’s best-known and critically acclaimed songs, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, which Rolling Stone named the 245th greatest song of all time (in the updated version, it was the 249th greatest song of all time). In 2003, the album was ranked number 45 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list.[16] In 1998 Q magazine readers voted The Band the 76th greatest album of all time. Time magazine included it in their unranked 2006 list of the 100 greatest albums. Robert Christgau, having been disappointed with the Band’s debut, had expected to dislike the record and even planned a column for the Village Voice to “castigate” their follow-up. Upon hearing the record, however, he declared it better than Abbey Road, which had been released four days following, writing that the Band’s LP is an “A-plus record if I’ve ever rated one.” He ranked it as the fourth best album of the year in his ballot for Jazz & Pop magazine’s annual critics poll. The album was later included in his “Basic Record Library” of 1950s and 1960s recordings, published in Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981)

1970 the Band released their third album, “Stage Fright“, which sold well and in 1971 “Cahoots“, which drew mixed receptions. Arguably, the intensity of the second album was impossible to reignite. Yet their true metier was the road, playing live, which they had done extensively whether the records sold or not, and booked a residency at the New York City Academy of Music for the last week of 1971, culminating in a New Year’s Eve performance. The nights of December 28 through 31 were recorded and 17 songs released on the live double album “Rock of Ages” (10 additional songs including a guest performance of Bob Dylan were published as bonus tracks in a 2000 reissue).

“Rock of Ages” complete on YouTube

Robbie Robertson had commissioned New Orleans songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint to compose horn charts for their recent singleLife Is a Carnival” from the album Cahoots, and decided to have Toussaint write special charts for a five-man horn section to augment the group on their upcoming concerts. Charts written by Toussaint in New Orleans were in luggage lost at the airport, and a new set was composed in a cabin near Robertson’s house in Woodstock. Robertson selected eleven songs to receive horn charts, and all are included on the released album. The horns do not play on “Get Up Jake”, “Stage Fright“, “This Wheel’s on Fire“, “The Weight“, “The Shape I’m In“, and “The Genetic Method.” Selections on the bonus disc also do not feature horn arrangements, although the horn section added spontaneous flourishes to “Down in the Flood” and “Rolling Stone.” The repertoire consisted of material from all four of The Band’s studio albums up to that point, and one new original song, “Get Up Jake”, which were framed on the album by covers of the 1964 Motown hit singleBaby Don’t You Do It” by Marvin Gaye, and “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up) My Rock and Roll Shoes”, the b-side of Chuck Willis’ final single.


The (relatively) weaker songs of the last two studio albums were eliminated, and the result forms one of the great live albums of rock music. Such albums notoriously get short shrift and the cold shoulder by critics, but there is perhaps no better possibility to delve live into the magic of old-time Americana than “Rock of Ages”. Try it!

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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