David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
365 Artists in 365 Days: Day 7 (The Weight)

May 3, 2020

The greatest song ever about self-sacrifice (take the load off, Fanny/and you put the load right on me) is the result of some of the greatest collaboration in the history of rock and roll. Even if Robbie Robertson is credited as the sole writer of The Band's "The Weight," I will not back down from this point. Hell, the band's name argued the point of a collective unit, not individual pieces. And certainly other band members argued that the writing of this song was a shared effort.

Let's look past the songwriting credits to the most obvious elements of collaboration within "The Weight." Three distinctive, exquisite voices sing the song: drummer Levon Helm's, bassist Rick Danko's, and keyboardist Richard Manuel's. In concert, Robbie Robertson's adds to the amazing layering vocal structures of the chorus. Each vocal's layer provides a symbolic addition to the weight on the lead vocal. In addition, the instruments blend beautifully together, lending none to a lead role, although Manuel's piano and Garth Hudson's organ supply lovely flourishes that create small bursts of musical sunbursts alongside the vocals.  Hudson's organ also reminds us the song's roots are in gospel.

In the version included in the sumptuous film The Last Waltz, the band cranks the song's spirituality by adding The Staple Singers for additional vocals, taking the leads in the second and third verses and providing even more texture and layer to that unbelievable chorus. The link included at the bottom here is to that clip. I can't help but smile whenever I see the way musicians of this caliber enjoy playing with each other. There is clearly a glee to collaborate on the stage that the rest of us will never experience. Certainly I find that kind of collaboration within academia difficult to find, and rarely beyond one on one collaboration. I suppose it's funny to think that academics potentially have bigger egos than musicians who have had Top 40 Hits.

Of course, one of the outrages of all time is that "The Weight" never broke the Top 50, stalling at #63. Even the equally luminous "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" couldn't get The Band into the Top 20. But, who were they kidding? The Archies had the top hit of that year with "Sugar Sugar." Collaboration be damned when it goes up against animation.

Why have I chosen "The Weight" for Day 7 of my series?  Co-incidentally it is a Sunday and while I didn't go looking for a song with a religious connection, once I heard it and remembered how it strikes deep in my soul, I certainly wasn't going to deny its spirituality. 

No, more importantly, I feel the weight of "The Weight" lyrics all the more in an era when collaboration is difficult, because of sheltering-in-place, or simply unheard of in the face of individual rights.

It doesn't help that I take the chorus way too literally. I have always been willing to take the load off of others, but that sure as hell ain't easy now.  Maybe that is because the verses finally seem to apply in the world of COVID-19. America ain't no Nazareth but there are plenty of men around here refusing the homeless man a bed. Meanwhile, armed gunmen have stormed the Michigan legislature demanding the state "re-open." Carmen took off and has left the devil with me. Even on a good day, it feels like we are "waitin' on judgement day."

If there is ever a time for self-sacrifice, now is the time. If there is ever a time for the collective, now is even more the time. "The Weight" is the gospel song for all of us whose "bag is sinkin' low."    

"The Weight." The Band. Music From The Big Pink. Capitol. 1968. Link here from The Last Waltz.

Day 6: Blondie "Picture This."

Day 8: Dawes "My Girl To Me." ->

See full unfinished list here.