“The Weight” is a song originally by the Canadian-American group the Band that was released as Capitol Records single 2269 in 1968 and on the group’s debut album Music from Big Pink. Written by Band member Robbie Robertson, the song is about a visitor’s experiences in a town mentioned in the lyric’s first line as Nazareth. “The Weight” has significantly influenced American popular music, having been listed as #41 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time published in 2004. Pitchfork Media named it the 13th best song of the Sixties, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. PBS, which broadcast performances of the song in “Ramble at the Ryman” (2011), “Austin City Limits” (2012), and “Quick Hits” (2012), describes it as “a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters” and notes its enduring popularity as “an essential part of the American songbook.”
“The Weight” is one of The Band’s best known songs though it was not a significant mainstream hit for the group in the U.S., peaking at only #63. The Band’s recording fared much better in Canada and the UK – in those countries, the single was a top 40 hit, peaking at #35 in Canada and #21 in the UK in 1968. The song’s popularity was greatly enhanced by three cover releases in 1968 and 1969 with arrangements that appealed to a diversity of music audiences. Aretha Franklin’s 1969 soul music arrangement was included in her This Girl’s in Love with You album, which peaked in the U.S. at #19 and #3 on the soul chart, and peaked in Canada at #12. Jackie DeShannon’s 1968 pop music arrangement, debuting on the Hot 100 one week before The Band’s, peaked at #55 in the U.S., #35 in Canada. A joint single rhythm and blues arrangement released by Diana Ross & the Supremes and The Temptations in 1969, hit #46 in the U.S., and #36 in Canada. The Band’s and Jackie DeShannon’s versions never mentioned the title. The Band’s version credits the group’s individual members – Jaime Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm – on the record label, rather than The Band as a single entity.
The inspiration for and influences affecting the composition of “The Weight” came from the music of the American South, the life experiences of band members, particularly Levon Helm, and movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
The original members of The Band performed “The Weight” as an American Southern folk song with country music (vocals, guitars and drums) and gospel music (piano and organ) elements. The lyrics, written in the first-person, are about a traveler’s experiences arriving, visiting, and departing a town called Nazareth. According to Robertson, this is based on Nazareth, Pennsylvania because it was the home of Martin Guitars. He wrote the guitar parts on a 1951 Martin. The singers, led by Helm, vocalize the traveler’s encounters with people in the town from the perspective of a Bible Belt American Southerner, like Helm himself, a native of rural Arkansas. After Helm’s death in 2012, Robertson, who was raised in Canada, described how visits to the Memphis, Tennessee area, around which Helm grew up, affected him and influenced his songwriting:
“To me … going there was like going to the source. Because I was at such a vulnerable age then, it made a really big impact on me. Just that I had the honor joining up with this group and then even going to this place, which was close to a religious experience – even being able to put my feet on the ground there, because I was from Canada, right? So it was like, ‘Woah, this is where this music grows in the ground, and [flows from] the Mississippi river. My goodness.’ It very much affected my songwriting and, because I knew Levon’s musicality so well, I wanted to write songs that I thought he could sing better than anybody in the world.
“While I was there, I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there. I just felt a strong passion toward the discovery of going there, and it opened my eyes, and all my senses were overwhelmed by the feeling of that place. When I sat down to write songs, that’s all I could think of at the time.”
The colorful characters in “The Weight” were based on real people members of The Band knew, as Levon Helm explained in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. In particular, “young Anna Lee” mentioned in the third verse is Helm’s longtime friend Anna Lee Amsden, and, according to her, “Carmen” was from Helm’s hometown, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. “Crazy Chester” was an eccentric resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who carried a cap gun. Ronnie Hawkins would tell him to “keep the peace” at his Rockwood Club when Chester arrived.
According to Robertson, “The Weight” was inspired by the movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel’s films are known for their surreal imagery and criticism of organized religion, particularly Catholicism. The song’s lyrics and music invoke vivid imagery, the main character’s perspective is influenced by the Bible, and the episodic story was inspired by the predicaments Buñuel’s film characters faced that undermined their goals for maintaining or improving their moral character. Of this, Robertson once stated:
“(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.”
Levon Helm — lead and harmony vocals, drums
Rick Danko — lead (fourth verse), backing, and harmony vocal, bass guitar
Richard Manuel — Lowrey organ (cut), backing and harmony vocals
Garth Hudson — piano
Robbie Robertson — acoustic guitar
The official recording credits on the single belong to the above names, in that order, not to The Band per se. In 2005, a remix of the song with Richard Manuel’s organ restored was released as a download-only bonus track for the iTunes Music Store version of A Musical History.
An edited version of the studio recording was included in the popular American counterculture film Easy Rider, which was released in July 1969. “The Weight” played while the protagonists, hippie motorcyclists, enjoyed a ride through Monument Valley.
On August 17, 1969, The Band performed “The Weight” as the tenth song in their set at Woodstock. The Woodstock arrangement was more elaborate than the comparatively elemental and spare studio recording. Notably, it retained Robertson’s simple folk guitar introduction, but Helm’s slow studio performance drum bangs were replaced by a short drum roll that provided the feel of a faster tempo though the actual tempo was the same as the studio performance. Manuel’s Lowrey organ, which was mixed out of the studio recording, was prominent; and Robertson participated vocally in the choruses.
In the 1970s, “The Weight” appeared on three live albums by The Band, Rock of Ages, Before the Flood, and The Last Waltz.
Just after their November 25, 1976, “farewell concert,” The Band performed a gospel arrangement of “The Weight” with The Staple Singers that was filmed for The Last Waltz. Mavis and Pops Staples sang second and third verse lead vocals, respectively, and Robertson performed with an electric guitar. This performance of “The Weight” was included on the 1978 soundtrack album from the film. The Band’s performance of the song during the concert itself was later included in a 2002 extended re-release of the soundtrack album.
The songwriting credit to Robbie Robertson for “The Weight”, like credit for many of the songs performed by The Band, was disputed years later by Levon Helm. Helm insisted that the composition of the lyrics and the music was collaborative, declaring that each band member made a substantial contribution. In an interview, Helm credited Robertson with 60 percent of the lyrics, Danko and Manuel with 20 percent each of the lyrics, much of the music credit to Garth Hudson, and a small credit to himself for lyrics.