The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #41: The Weight by The Band (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #41: The Weight by The Band.

One of the reasons I started this countdown series was to tell the stories of the meanings behind our favourite songs so that we could bop to those tunes with confidence that we knew what message our song was giving out. For me, I am as guilty as anyone at taking songs at face value. A perfect case in point is the song, “The Weight” by The Band. I have liked The Band for several decades now and have always thought of many of their songs as “story songs”. The Band’s songs were never “Boy-meets-Girl/Boy-loses-Girl” type songs. They are always songs that took me on a little journey inside my imagination. Consequently, I always listened to songs like “The Weight” from a storyteller’s perspective and simply enjoyed the manner in which they told the tale they opted to share. My crime was never really thinking past the lyrics into the symbolism they may have contained. In my mind, “The Weight” always seemed like the story of a traveller who came to a small town. In my mind’s eye, I always pictured that stranger walking into a western saloon and looking for a room and falling in love with the bar maid, all the while meeting the eccentric locals. Well, from what I was able to glean from my research, I was wrong. Not only was I wrong but, I was way off the mark. Apparently, the song is a hymn.

In conducting my research, three main themes were given as to what “The Weight” actually means. First of all, drummer Levon Helm *(Whose name was the inspiration for the Elton John song entitled, “Levon”) stated that the song was simply based on tour stories from their travels as a band and that the characters mentioned were people they knew in real life. There is some credence to this as seen in the fact that Robbie Robertson’s guitar was made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania so, the story of their travels begins where Robertson got his guitar.

I pulled into Nazareth,

feeling bout half past dead.”

The character of Crazy Chester, for example, was a mentally challenged young man who lived in the same town as singer, Ronnie Hawkins. In real life, this young man helped “protect” the town and always reported to Hawkins if he witnessed anything suspicious going on. There are other examples given by Helms that line up the characters in the song with real life people so, because of that, Helms always dismissed the “hymn” angle as being a bunch of nonsense.

The second theory offered up leads us toward the religious but not the full way there. It related to the “Summer of Love” and the trend shown by some musicians toward exploring Eastern philosophies and mysticism. In that light, some theorize that “The Weight”, in question, are our earthly burdens in life and that the whole of Life’s journey is the bearing of burdens for the sake of others, as well as, the relieving of burdens so that others may life more freely and easily. “The Weight”, in other words, is about cosmic harmony and community. The people mentioned in the song all play a role in either the bearing of burdens or the release of them for the narrator, whose life the song is about.

The third version of what this song may be about was put forth by none other than singer, Mavis Staples. As you may know, Mavis Staples was part of the famous Staples Family singers, under the direction of her father, Pops Staples. The Staples Family were known for their passionate singing of Gospel songs. They made a star turn in the documentary, “The Summer of Soul” that is nominated for an Academy Award this year, based upon their performance at the Harlem Cultural Festival in NYC in 1969, just after Woodstock. In any case, Mavis Staples and the Staples Family singers were involved as back up singers in the documentary shot by Martin Scorsese about The Band’s final show called, “The Last Waltz”. “The Weight” was the closing number in that concert. Staples says that singing “The Weight” on stage that night was the closing feeling she has ever had to having a religious experience while on stage. She says that she felt a strong connection to God as The Band sang about looking for room to stay in at Nazareth and onward from there. The Biblical connections run all the way through this song, accordingly to Staples who, to this very day, says that “The Weight” is her favourite song to sing live.

As for me, if “The Weight” is about the Bible story of the birth of the Baby Jesus or, if it is about the Eastern Philosophy of brotherhood and community and inter-connectedness or else, if “The Weight” is about the road stories acquired by the members of The Band as they toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, I don’t really care. I still like the song because of the nature of the harmonies and the quality of the storytelling which, to me, will always conjure visions of a western saloon and a barmaid named Anna Lee. Guilty as charged. I like the song without caring for its real meaning. A meaning that may or may not even really exist. But, apparently, it is a hymn of sorts. Who knew? Not me, that is for sure.

So, without further delay, here is one of my favourite sounding songs of all-time, “The Weight” by The Band. What do you think the song is about or do you even care? In any case, for now, let’s all just enjoy this great song. Have a great day, everyone. May your burdens all be light and easily borne.

The link to the video for the song, “The Weight” by The Band, accompanied by The Staples family singers, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Band, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.