I was around fourteen years old when The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” made it into the Top Forty. Must have been the summer of 1969 or thereabouts. The first thing I did upon hearing the tune was look on a map to try and figure out where the hell Cripple Creek was. This was well before the days of Google and other such search engines, but I had a bit of a sense of geography. I found it out in Colorado. Then I found out about the mining that went on in those parts. Wasn’t but a few years after that that Robert Altman’s movie McCabe and Mrs. Miller came out. It didn’t take place in Cripple Creek, but it could have. For those of you who have never seen this flick, it’s all about monopoly capitalism and how it destroys everything that came before it.
I digress. Let me get back to The Band and that album that “Up On Cripple Creek” was on. I had a buddy back then who turned me on to the first Band album titled Music From Big Pink. He was the same guy who introduced me to Buffalo Springfield and their successors, among many others. I got him into Dylan. We dug grooves so deep in Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and the bootleg Great White Wonder that those records became transparent. Anyhow, it was that song “The Weight” that convinced me The Band was more than just A Band.
When the album that contained “Up On Cripple Creek” came out, the Beatles had released Abbey Road and the Stones had Let It Bleed in the stores. The Doors had just released the over-produced yet iconclastic The Soft Parade and The Who had their rock opera Tommy busting up the concert venues. Bob Dylan was a married man operating out of Woodstock, New York and had just put out his country album Nashville Skyline. Speaking of Woodstock, a big old rock festival took place there that summer, too. Y’all might have heard of it. I remember playing the Stones album for my mom, followed by The Band. My dad was overseas fighting a war in Vietnam. She suggested I not tell him about the Stones, but he might like The Band. When he came back in February 1970, he couldn’t tell the difference. It was all hippie music to him.
Some rock groups write about a future they wanted to see. Others write about surviving in the world as it is. Still others write about places that can never be. The Band did all three; and they did by singing about a past that was part myth and part allegory, part history and part dream. The album simply titled The Band is an austere looking package. Brown and gray, it tries to represent a time when people were genuine and politicians had to try and prove they were people. Even the Confederate anthem ,”The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” isn’t about the confederacy as much as it’s about the desire to be true to oneself and one’s people. The sing reminds me of where I live now–in the mountains of western North Carolina–where people pride themselves on their independence and opposition to those who would consolidate them. Plantation owners and corporate capitalist–screw ’em all. At the same time, the song is about how that desire for independence can be manipulated by the powers that be to serve their ends. Slavery back then and Empire today. Contradictions still unresolved.
There was a big divide in the US of A back then. It was so big that it seemed biblical at times. Bob Dylan and his songs were the part of the poetry of one side of that divide. At least, that’s how it seemed back then. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. The house divided against itself. There was no crossing that divide. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver put it like this: if one wasn’t part of the solution, one was part of the problem. That little brown and gray album simply titled The Band was the sons and daughters’ attempt to bridge that ever-widening gap. Their advice was simple and real. It was based on something larger than the war in Vietnam and the length of one’s hair or the intoxicants they chose. “Just grab your hat, and take that ride/Get yourself a bride, And bring your children down to the river side.” After all, when it’s all said and done, life goes on like it always has. Even with the bomb hanging over our heads. The Band counseled us all to look for the things we had in common, with music being one of the most obvious means to talk about those things. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan were singing the same tune and together. Merle Haggard was singing about his fightin’ side while the Grateful Dead (both of whom had done their own part to widen that aforementioned divide) sang his songs. Like the lonesome sparrow, the musicmakers were showing us how to harmonize.
The America that was born in the madness of the industrial revolution and the robber barons is reflected in the song “Unfaithful Servant.” “Life has been good to us all” sings Rick Danko, “even when the sky was raining.” We the people said goodbye to the country home, hopping on the train to the big city and its chill and greed. But we also said goodbye to the ignoble institution of racial slavery when we did so. The thing about the songs here is that, while regretting the loss of innocence, they acknowledge the fact that there’s some things that we can’t do a thing about and must learn to take in stride. “We’re still one and the same…” after all is said and done. Humans all of us. The great divide is part of the evolution of time.
When I first played this album for my friends in Germany (it hadn’t made it to the Post Exchange yet), the guys’ immediate favorite was “Rag Mama Rag.” This is a little ditty about making love and having fun. Nothing wrong with that. On further listening, however, the overwhelming favorite was “King Harvest.” This simple song about a union man who hopes that this time around he’ll get his just due is a testament to the faith of a union man and, by projection, the faith of all of us who believe that there is justice somewhere on this earth if only we believe. That union man was the new slave, but his wage slavery was different than that of the plantation Black, if for no other reason than that he assumed he had some element of power. Even when his job was oppressive or stolen away, he still had his independence. He could walk away and not be hunted like the runaway slave.
The virtuosity of the musicians that made up The Band was never in question. These men had chops. Chops they had developed in many a roadhouse as the backup band for rocker Ronnie Hawkins. Chops that they refined as Bob Dylan’s electric orchestra in the mid to late 1960s. No one did what they did. No one does it now, although there are several bands out there whose influences definitely include The Band. Speaking of Dylan, he toured with The Band again in his legendary comeback tour of 1974. I caught this tour on the afternoon of January 31, 1974 at Madison Square Garden. I’m being quite honest when I write that the musical aspect of this show was somewhat lost on me that day. I was overwhelmed just because I was seeing and hearing Bob Dylan for the first time. I do recall “It’s All Right, Ma” as the highlight in my mind. Perhaps this was because of the audience response to the line “Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked…” Richard Nixon was on his way out of the White House because he had been stripped naked and there were enough senators and congressmen who had heeded the call to take seriously their job to impeach the SOB. If one wants to get a genuine flavor of this tour, they should give the album that was recorded from the tour–Before The Flood–a listen. The great divide was still there, but we were growing up and our parents were adjusting to the new world. Certain values never change, they just get reinterpreted. The Band knew it all along.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com