This tells the story of a guy who visits Nazareth, and is asked by his friend Fanny to visit several of her friends. "The Weight" that is his load are all these strange people he promised he would check on. The song was never a big hit, but it endures as a classic rock staple.
The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, claims this was influenced by the work of Luis Buñuel, a Spanish director who made some of the first movies dealing with surrealism. Robertson was intrigued by the characters in his films, who were often good people who did bad things.
Robbie Robertson got the only writing credit for this song, although other members of the group claimed that they contributed to this as well as many of their other songs and were not credited. Since only the writer receives royalties for a song, this created a great deal of tension in The Band.
The vocals are shared by Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm, who harmonize on the choruses. Helm takes lead on the first three verses; Danko takes the fourth ("Crazy Chester followed me...); Helm and Danko share the last verse ("Catch the cannonball...).
One of the distinctive characteristics of The Band was their three lead vocalists. Helm had the added challenge of singing from behind his drum kit when they played live.
Nazareth, where the story takes place, refers to the town in Pennsylvania about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. The rock group Nazareth got their name from this line ("Went down to Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead...").
In the liner notes for the Across the Great Divide
box set, Robbie Robertson is quoted as saying he chose that place because they make legendary Martin guitars there, so he was aware of the town and been there once or twice. Citizens of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, were thrilled when Robertson acknowledged it as the setting in this famous song.
Jared - Meadville, PA
The characters in the song - Crazy Chester, Luke, Anna Lee, are based on friends of the band. In Levon Helm's autobiography This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm And The Story Of The Band, he explained:
"We had two or three tunes, or pieces of tunes, and 'The Weight' was one I would work on. Robbie had that bit about going down to Nazareth - Pennsylvania, where the Martin guitar factory is at. The song was full of our favorite characters. 'Luke' was Jimmy Ray Paulman. 'Young Anna Lee' was Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch. 'Crazy Chester' was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips and kinda walked around town to help keep the peace,if you follow me. He was like Hopalong Cassidy, and he was a friend of the Hawks. Ronnie would always check with Crazy Chester to make sure there wasn't any trouble around town. And Chester would reassure him that everything was peaceable and not to worry, because he was on the case. Two big cap guns, he wore, plus a toupee! There were also 'Carmen and the Devil', 'Miss Moses' and 'Fanny,' a name that just seemed to fit the picture. (I believe she looked a lot like Caladonia.) We recorded the song maybe four times. We weren't really sure it was going to be on the album, but people really liked it. Rick, Richard, and I would switch the verses around among us, and we all sang the chorus: Put the load right on me!"
There has been more than a little debate among classic rock DJs and enthusiasts over the real meaning of this song. Yes, Robertson has insisted time and again there is no biblical subtext, but many people think he may be deflecting. Consider the following:
- The narrator can't find a bed in Nazareth, and the guy to whom he makes an inquiry just smiles and says "no."
- Carmen and the devil were walking side by side, Carmen can go but her friend the devil has to stick around - an allusion to ever-present temptations.
- "Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fall" - possible allusion to Paul on the road to Damascus.
- The most glaring one: "I do believe it's time to get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one who sent me here with her regards for everyone" - Miss Fanny is the one who sent him to Nazareth, but now it's time for him to go back to her; Miss Fanny is God, the "time" in question is the crucifixion, and "regards for everyone" is Jesus dying for all of man's sins.
S.D. - Denver, CO
In the 2020 documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, Robertson discusses how he wrote this song one day while "noodling" with his guitar and trying to come up with songs for Music From Big Pink. When he looked inside his Martin guitar he saw the standard Martin imprint saying that the instrument was crafted in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The name of the town spurred memories of a journey he made from his native Canada down to the Mississippi Delta when he was 16 years old. He thought of all the characters he met on that trip, and in his mind heard voices singing what would become the song's chorus.
This was used in the movie Easy Rider. The Band performed the version heard in the movie, but on the soundtrack, a different group was used because of legal issues.
On September 28, 1968, this song reached its peak US chart position of #63. That same day, Jackie DeShannon's cover reached its peak of #55 US. DeShannon's release wasn't what she had in mind. She explained in her Songfacts interview
: "I absolutely said, 'No way I'm going to do it, it's The Band's record, goodbye.' But the label kept calling me, so I finally said, 'Well, if you can get confirmation from The Band that they're not putting it out as a single and I can do it with their permission, then okay.' So, I recorded it. The record's going up the chart and all of a sudden, here comes The Band's single. Then Aretha Franklin's version comes out. So I was at a radio station talking to the program director, and there were two other people promoting the same record outside the door."
Aretha Franklin's version was the biggest hit, reaching #19 in March 1969. Many other acts have since covered the song. A version by Diana Ross and the Supremes with The Temptations reached #46 in October 1969, which was the last time it charted in America. The song was also recorded by: A Group Called Smith, The Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Joan Osborne, Keller Williams, King Curtis & Duane Allman, Otis & Travis, Rotary Connection, Spooky Tooth, and The Ventures.
The album title came from the big pink house in upstate New York they rented and used as a recording studio. The Band was Bob Dylan's backup band, and they moved there to be near Dylan while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident. Dylan offered to help with this album, but The Band refused because they wanted to make a mark on their own.
Robbie Robertson described this song as being about "the impossibility of sainthood."
The Staple Singers sing on this in The Band's 1978 concert film The Last Waltz
. "Being in The Last Waltz
was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to the Staple Singers," Mavis Staples told Rolling Stone
in 2015. "I still can't get offstage without doing 'The Weight.'"
While most of The Last Waltz
was taken from The Band's farewell concert in San Francisco, this performance was shot on a sound stage.
Bertrand - Paris, France, for above 2
The line, "Catch a Cannonball now, to take me down the line," refers to a train. There was no real Cannonball except in legend: It was popularized in the song from the 1800s called "The Wabash Cannonball," and mentioned in some blues songs of the early 1900s, including the original version of "C.C. Rider
In 2007, this was used in a commercial for Cingular Wireless. Levon Helm took issue with it and sued BBDO, the advertising agency that came up with the campaign. Said Helm: "It was just a complete, damn sellout of The Band - its reputation, its music; just as much disrespect as you could pour on Richard and Rick's tombstones."
The Band played this at Woodstock in 1969. The festival fit in well with their schedule, as they were touring to promote their first album, Music From Big Pink
. Their performance stands out as a highlight from the festival, and earned The Band a great deal of exposure.
Bertrand - Paris, France, for above 3
Scottish rock band Nazareth, who are best known for their transatlantic hit "Love Hurts
," took their name from a lyric in this song - "I pulled into Nazareth, Was feelin' about half past dead."
This song was featured in the 1978 documentary of The Band, The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese. Most of the film was shot at their Thanksgiving Day, 1976 concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, but their performance of "The Weight" was done in a studio with The Band joined by The Staple Singers, a gospel group who wrung out the spirituality of the song.
In celebration of Band drummer Levon Helm, who died in 2012, "The Weight" was performed at the Grammy Awards the next year with Mavis Staples joining Elton John, Mumford & Sons, the Zac Brown Band and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Unlike many star-packed performances that get messy fast, this one worked. The song is a great showcase for multiple performers and served as a fitting tribute to Helm.
Aretha Franklin's version featured Duane Allman playing slide guitar using an empty bottle of decongestant pills.
Joe Cocker also covered this song. It was included on the 2005 deluxe edition of his 1970 live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
Weezer covered this in 2008 and released it as a bonus track on The Red Album.