The Band’s ‘The Band”

Cover of The Band's Self-Titled album

This week, I’ve been listening to The Band’s self-titled second album, which was released in 1969. The Band started as rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkin’s backing band, The Hawks, in the late 50s. They earned recognition as Bob Dylan’s backing band in the mid 60s, taking on the name The Band. They then broke off and did their own thing, to considerable acclaim. I’ve only heard a couple of their songs previous to this week. I really liked this album, though I didn’t quite come around to loving it. It took several listens to shake the feeling I was listening to Dylan’s backing band without Dylan. There’s some excellent musicianship here and some pretty good songwriting. The overall human looseness of the performance impresses me. This as well as the production produces a very live and raw feeling to the record.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The third track on the album “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” tells of the fall of the American Confederacy. The narrative comes from the perspective of a poor white Southerner looking back on the final days of the American Civil War. Strange for a Canadian songwriter in the 1960s with progressive views. Nothing about the song, despite the mournful voice of the narrator, seems to be an endorsement for the Confederacy. To the contrary, I hear this less as a song about the Civil War specifically and more an empathetic tale of those left paying for a war on the losing side.

A kick drum and weakly played piano chord kicks off the song in a major key. Though the song is in a major key, it’s often played as if in the relative minor. The drums and piano are joined by lead vocals, bass guitar, acoustic and electric guitars. A melodica provides pads the background creating a distant train-whistle effect. The rhythm of the song is loose, almost stumbling. There’s the feeling of mutual mourning after a night of drinking among the group.

The verses follow a vi-I-IV-I-ii played twice, then vi-IV-I-ii played twice, with a major II leading into the chorus. In the relative minor, those chord progressions would be i-III-VI-III-iv and i-VI-III-iv. Neither are strong progressions, but from the perspective of the relative minor they look more conventional. The chorus however, feels more triumphant with a stronger I-IV7-I-IV7 chord progression repeated twice followed by an forlorn anthemic post-chorus of I-vi-Vsus4-IV-I.

The lyrics of the three verses are built on ABABCCDD rhyhme scheme. However, this is not consistent. For the first verse, A and B are themselves are slant rhymes and the in second verse A and B rhyme; So the rhyme scheme for the first two verses could be written as AAAACCDD. I don’t know if that follows convention, but I use it here because of the ABAB of the final verse. The choruses then follow a ABAB rhyme scheme closed with a ‘na na na’ post-chorus.

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65,
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember oh so well

Up On Cripple Creek

“Up On Cripple Creek” brings a funky sort of country rock towards the end of side A. I knew this song before this week, probably the only on the album I’d really heard before. The first thing I remember loving about it is the sound of the clavinet played through a wah pedal at the end of each verse. Growing up, I thought it was a Jew’s harp. It creates a great sound, which through the verses gives an almost funk feel. At the same time, Garth Hudson simultaneously plays the organ and provides backing vocals.

Here, the band follows more convention strong chord progressions of I-IV-I-IV-V repeated twice in the verses. Then they follow a I-IV-V-vi-VII in the chorus. That unusual rise up to a major VII increases the far-out effect of the clavinet riff that closes each chorus. The other instruments back down to let it happen as a sort-of aside.

They’ve written the words of the chorus as an almost call-and-response, though the lead vocalist delivers both lines. There’s a short “if this…” followed by a short “then this” for what the beloved Bessie of the song will do. The first three lines, seen as three lines follow an AAA rhyme scheme, however if we break them up into six lines, we end up with an ABABAB rhyme. The final line of the chorus does not necessarily rhyme, though there could be an argument for “dream” and “see one.” There is consonance with drunkard/dream/did.

Up on Cripple Creek: she sends me
If I spring a leak: she mends me
I don’t have to speak: she defends me
A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one…

King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

With “King Harvest,” the Band continues to sing about the rural poor of the American South. In this case, a farmer faces hardship and joins the a union in hopes of turning his life around. He prays for rain and maintains hope that “King Harvest will surely come.”

The drums here are particularly dry, with the tight snare drum punching a hole right through the mix. Organ and electric guitar build a funky rhythm around what is essential an up-tempo country-rock song. Contrary to convention, they perform the verses more energetic, leading into a growing up-beat prechorus, with a low-energy down-beat chorus. The chorus even sort of peters out towards the end, the hope for King Harvest doesn’t sound quite so hopeful.

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