“Up on Cripple Creek” is the fifth song on The Band’s eponymous second album, The Band. It was released as an (edited) single on Capitol 2635 in November 1969 and reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Up on Cripple Creek” was written by Band guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson, with drummer Levon Helm singing lead vocal.
A 1976 live performance of “Up on Cripple Creek” appears in the Band’s concert film The Last Waltz, as well as on the accompanying soundtrack album. In addition, live performances of the song appear on Before the Flood, which records the Band’s 1974 tour with Bob Dylan, as well as on the 2001 expanded edition of Rock of Ages, originally released in 1972.
“Up on Cripple Creek” is notable as it is one of the first instances of a Hohner clavinet being played with a wah-wah pedal. The riff can be heard after each chorus of the song. The clavinet, especially in tandem with a wah-wah pedal was a sound that became famous in the early to mid-1970s, especially in funk music.
The Band performed the song on the Ed Sullivan Show in November 1969.
Drawing upon the Band’s musical roots—the American South, American rock and roll, and bluegrass/country—the song is sung from the point of view of a truck driver who goes to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to stay with a local girl, Bessie, with whom he has a history. In the song, he gambles, drinks, listens to music, and spends time with “little Bessie,” who takes an active role in the goings-on, while expressing her opinions, further endearing herself to the narrator. At the end of the song, after exhausting himself on the road, he talks about going home to his woman, “big mama,” but is tempted to return to Bessie again. Or he may not be cheating. Truckers also use the term “Big Mama” to refer to their dispatcher over the CB radio. Concerns about the weather in other parts of the country and the line “this life of living on the road” suggest over-the-road trucking. At the start of the song he’s hauling logs off a mountain and at the end he may be weighing options: “rolling in” to home base for a new cargo or seeing his Bessie again.
Robertson has said of the song:
We’re not dealing with people at the top of the ladder, we’re saying what about that house out there in the middle of that field? What does this guy think, with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? That’s who I’m curious about. What is going on in there? And just following the story of this person, and he just drives these trucks across the whole country, and he knows these characters that he drops in on, on his travels. Just following him with a camera is really what this song’s all about.
AllMusic critic Bill Janovitz describes the melody as “light and catchy,” also stating that the song has a “New Orleans groove.” Janovitz also regards the “non-traditional, funky style” of Garth Hudson’s clavinet playing a precursor of Stevie Wonder’s similar keyboard playing on “Superstition.”
The hip hop duo Gang Starr sampled the rhythm track on their own song “Beyond Comprehension.”
Levon Helm – lead vocals, drums
Rick Danko – bass guitar, backing vocals
Garth Hudson – clavinet with wah-wah pedal, Lowrey organ
Richard Manuel – piano, backing vocals
Robbie Robertson – electric guitar