You know where I want to go
Straight down to the Mississippi River
To the Gulf of Mexico
To Lake Charles, Louisiana
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Calcasieu River passing through Lake Charles
Following the folk rock boom of the 1960s, the next decade saw a rise of grassroots rock – music for regular guys. Bands across North America rode the pendulum swing back the other direction, from turbulence, violence, and social upheaval to relaxation, family values, and real life. Many artists and songwriters hopped aboard this train and Canadian rockers, The Band, were no different.
Led by Robbie Robertson, the members of The Band first came together to play rockabilly and bluegrass music in the late '50s and early '60s. They began backing Bob Dylan during his tours in the mid-'60s. Their 1968 debut album – without any frontman – Music from Big Pink
set their moniker in stone (since they’d always back other artists, they simply stuck with "the band").
Their sophomore, self-titled effort released in 1969 contained perhaps their most famous track, "Up on Cripple Creek," which rose to #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Robertson, the song tells the story of a blue collar truck driver looking forward to his next trip south to meet his lady friend. Robertson loved telling the stories of average joes and liked to keep his lyrics "real."
The narrator of the song gambles, drinks, listens to music, and spends time with "Little Bessie" while he’s away from home. He mentions exhausting himself on the road and the problems with weather in other parts of the country. Truck driving can be a lonely profession, but when he’s finished with the work, the narrator sings about returning home to "big mama" (a euphemism for their dispatcher at headquarters and not, as many have previously argued, a reference to his wife).
Downtown Lake Charles
Interestingly enough, "Up on Cripple Creek" is the first time a clavinet was used with a wah-wah pedal to achieve a unique sound often duplicated in the '70s, especially in funk music. This particular riff can be heard during every chorus. Other than the town being where Bessie is from, what makes Lake Charles Louisiana (mentioned in the first stanza) so special to the narrator, Robertson, and The Band?
Lake Charles is in the southwest corner of the state of Louisiana, a mere stone's throw from the border of Texas. Originally called Charleston, the area is known for its many lakes – the namesake body of water being only the largest of them. In 1910, a great fire devastated most of the city, but it was quickly rebuilt, and during World War II it experienced an industrial boom.
The natural beauty of the region can be predominately attributed to the Calcasieu River, Prien Lake, and a handful of bayous – Contraband Bayou, Henderson Bayou, and English Bayou – which are marshy outlets of lakes and rivers. Specifically, the Calcasieu Channel allows large ocean liners to sail up from the Gulf of Mexico.
Did Robertson and The Band ever actually visit Lake Charles? It’s unclear. But what is
clear is the inspiration behind the tune. Robertson felt akin to truckers, since rock bands have been forced into touring to make ends meet since the birth of the industry (recording companies take a huge percentage of record sales). Likewise, The Band spent a great deal of time on the road. So it isn’t a far stretch to assume some modicum of sympathy for the truck drivers.
By 1976, a mere seven years after the release of "Up on Cripple Creek," Robertson found himself weary of touring and urged The Band to retire. The Last Waltz
– a massive ‘farewell’ concert – took place on November 25th in San Francisco, featuring special guests Neil Young and Joni Mitchell along with a host of others, including Eric Clapton, Muddy Watters, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and Ringo Starr. The concert was recorded by Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas
A decade later, in an interview for "Where are You Now, Bo Diddley? The Artists who made us Rock and Where they are Now," Robertson said, “I made my big statement… I’ll take the best music film that’s ever been made, and make it my statement. I don’t have any problems with that.”
Neither do we Robbie... neither do we.
~ Justin Novelli
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