5. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (Cahoots, 1971)
Written by Dylan, and performed by him, the Grateful Dead, and countless others, the song is best delivered by Helm on the Band’s 1971 album, Cahoots. Again, the track is filled with randomly juxtaposed images: the narrator’s encounters with lions inside the Coliseum lead to a bumpy plane ride to Brussels where everyone wildly greets him when he steps inside. I always imagined the song to be about Dylan’s madcap tours of Europe, where the ruthless schedule and generous use of amphetamines led him into an altered state of mind for much of his time abroad. Helm’s rendering gives the narrator an average Joe quality; it’s easy to picture a “fish out of water” traveling the world and gaining fame all for the first time.
4. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (The Band, 1969)
One of the most historically resonant songs in the Band’s canon, this remarkable epic accurately and honestly offers a viewpoint of the American Civil War through the eyes of Virgil Caine, a Tennessee farmer who honorably “served on the Danville train”. Originally conceived and written by the Canadian Robertson, the song was fact-checked by Helm, who famously accompanied Robertson to an American library to perform research and ensure that the South would be given its due reverence. Rather than veering into battle cry territory like other songs with a pro-South slant, this song instead graciously documents the struggles and heartaches of a man losing his place in a rapidly changing world. Like most of the Band’s work, the common man is given a voice that speaks to a larger generation.
3. “Tears of Rage” (Music from Big Pink, 1968)
“We carried you / In our arms / On Independence Day,” wails Richard Manuel over the opening notes of this Music From Big Pink gem. A collaborative effort between Manuel and Dylan that was originally recorded for The Basement Tapes with Dylan on lead vocals, the song universally stands as one of the best in the Band catalog, a plaintive rumination on the vagaries of human existence. Critics have a field day with this one. Andy Gill associates it with King Lear and the rising anti-Vietnam sentiments of the time. Sid Griffin concentrates on the song’s Biblical imagery, while Greil Marcus calls it an elegy. Levon Helm simply focuses on Manuel’s vocals: “Richard sang one of the best performances of his life.”
2. “Up on Cripple Creek” (The Band, 1969)
One of two songs that the casual fan will probably recognize from the Band, “Up on Cripple Creek” tells the story of a good-natured drunk who travels to Lake Charles, Louisiana to take up with the long-suffering Bessie: “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” There, the rent is free and the living is easy. The narrator can carouse, gamble, and raise hell without recourse. The song’s sing-along chorus, Helm’s genial vocal delivery, and the featured yodeling make the song an anthem for the good times. Absent of any maudlin sentimentality, “Up on Cripple Creek” serves as a soundtrack to everything from a breezy summer barbecue to a drive through the country with the windows down. And if the song needed to be any cooler, it also features Garth Hudson and Clavinet, a novelty at the time.
1. “The Weight” (Music from Big Pink, 1968)
The other most recognizable song from the Band is a classic that needs little introduction. A weary traveler pulls into Nazareth “feelin’ about half past dead”. While searching for lodging, he encounters “Carmen and Devil walkin’ side by side”, “young Anna Lee”, and “Crazy Chester” who all mysteriously appear, offering various cryptic messages to the wandering narrator. The song offers up striking visuals of frontier towns, mythical beings, and spirited haunts. Like most of the Band’s work, it’s also full of odes to religious imagery and open to eons of interpretation. It also has a killer, vocally blended chorus: “And (and and), you put the load right on me (you put the load right on me).” This song has been making the rounds in concert tributes to Levon over the past week too, as its music perfectly serves as a final farewell to a true legend of a musician. Levon, you will forever be missed.
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This article originally ran after the death of Levon Helm. It ran on 25 April 2012. We have updated this feature because the Band’s music is timeless.