Released: September 22, 1969
Peak: 9 US, 25 UK, 2 CN, 18 AU
Sales (in millions): 1.0 US
Genre: folk rock/Americana/roots music
Song Title (Writers) [time] (date of single release, chart peaks) Click for codes to singles charts.
Total Running Time: 43:50
4.251 out of 5.00 (average of 22 ratings)
Awards: (Click on award to learn more).
About the Album:
One of the most celebrated Americana albums in history was recorded by a band who was 4/5 Canadian. TL As The Hawks, they supported Bob Dylan on tour during his infamous switch to electric. They also recorded with Dylan, resulting in a bootleg series known as The Basement Tapes which eventually saw official release in the mid-1970s. In 1968, The Band released its first album, Music from Big Pink. It was a “ramshackle musical blend and songs of rural tragedy” AMG which “defined the back-porch rootsiness that remains a central inspiration for the ‘alternative country’ movement.” TL In fact, at the time of the album’s release, Time magazine declared The Band “the new sound of country rock.” RV
That second outing “was a more deliberate and even more accomplished effort” AMG featuring “even better songwriting and ensemble playing.” NRR Part of this was attributed to The Band’s laid-back style of “passing their instruments around like it was a hootenanny.” TL “The arrangements were simultaneously loose and assured, giving the songs a timeless appeal.” AMG The performances are marked by Levon “Helm’s (and occasionally Manuel’s) propulsive drumming to Robertson’s distinctive guitar fills and the endlessly inventive keyboard textures of Garth Hudson,” AMG who “manipulates his Lowrey organ in ways that continue to boggle the ear.” RV It was “all topped by the rough, expressive singing of Manuel, Helm, and Rick Danko that mixed leads with harmonies.” AMG
As Bruce Springsteen stated in the documentary Once Were Brothers, any of the three were capable of leading a group. OB Interestingly, though, it isn’t really any of the vocalists who were “the leader of the Band,” but Robbie Robertson, who took the reins here as the writer or co-writer on all 12 songs. He proved to be a “superb storyteller.” RV Though Canadian, he “tackled the astonishing scope of this American life” TL with lyrics painting “portraits of 19th century rural life (especially Southern life, as references to Tennessee and Virginia made clear), its sometimes less savory aspects treated with warmth and humor.” AMG Some have even called this a concept album because of “the songs focusing on people, places, and traditions associated with an older version of Americana.” WK He keyed in on “a series of American archetypes from the union worker in King Harvest Has Surely Come and the retired sailor in Rockin' Chair to, most famously, the Confederate Civil War observer Virgil Cane in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” AMG
The Band’s Americana sound was crafted by a mix of “rock ‘n’ roll with country, bluegrass, rhythm-and-blues, and even gospel.” NRR By creating a sound which was “deliberately against the grain,” NRR The Band offered “an image of America largely absent in the popular music of its time.” NRR
“The album effectively mixed the kind of mournful songs that had dominated Music from Big Pink” AMG with “the achingly wistful Whispering Pines” TL and When You Awake with “rollicking uptempo numbers” AMG like “the joyful hoedown Rag Mama Rag” TL “and Up on Cripple Creek.” AMG
Helm takes the lead on the most notable songs – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “Rag Mama Rag,” as well as Jemimah Surrender.” Richard Manuel takes the lead for “King Harvest Has Surely Come,” “Whispering Pines,” “Rockin’ Chair,” Across the Great Divide, and Jawbone. Meanwhile, Rick Danko is the lead vocalist for “When You Awake,” “Look Out Cleveland,” and “The Unfaithful Servant.” Helm said in the Classic Albums documentary that they’d each try out the vocals on the songs and the group would decide which worked best. CA
Notes: A 2000 reissue added six alternate takes and an outtake of the song “Get Up Jake,” which had been released as a B-side.
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First posted 9/22/2012; updated 7/15/2021.