Dylan pulling The Band into Nazareth II: who wrote what?

by Jochen Markhorst

This article continues from Dylan pulling The Band into Nazareth: 1 – Lessons from the master craftsman

The song indeed is in Robbie’s name, and in his autobiography Testimony he devotes more than five hundred words to the genesis of the song. In doing so he insists that he wrote it all by himself. The opening words I pulled into Nazareth, for example:

“Upstairs in the workroom across from my bedroom on Larsen Lane, I sat with a little typewriter, a pen and legal pad, and a Martin D-28 guitar that said NAZARETH, PENNSYLVANIA on the label inside the sound hole. I revisited memories and characters from my southern exposure and put them into a Luis Buñuel surreal setting. One of the themes that really stuck with me from Buñuel’s films, like Viridiana, was the impossibility of sainthood—no good deed goes unpunished. I wrote “The Weight” in one sitting that night.”

A little further on he emphasises that “The Weight” is “something I had been working up to for years”, he claims that an impressed producer John Simon confides to him that he’s fascinated by the lyrics, that the guys from the band “reacted very strongly to the song,” and that a speechless Dylan wants to know who wrote that “fantastic song”. “Me,” I answered.

It’s an annoying element in Robertson’s memoirs: the blowing on his own horn. Virtually always through a transparent, quasi-modest detour; Robertson lets interlocutors burst out in hymns, jubilation cantatas and exalted tributes. If you believe him, Robbie spends large parts of his life making his way through crowds of devout Robertson fans like John Simon, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Elton John and Van Morrison, who are alternately stunned, furiously patting Robbie’s back, delighted, confessing to be inspired by him and breathlessly admiring him.

It’s a bit sad and moreover unnecessary; Robertson has toured the world with Dylan, is a great guitarist, has timeless songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Davy’s On The Road Again” and “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” to his name, the world’s top directors ask him to make the film music (Raging Bull, The Color Of Money, Any Given Sunday, and many more), he wins awards and scores hits – the well-deserved recognition and appreciation is there.

And maybe he wrote “The Weight” all by himself, who knows. But especially Levon Helm has reservations:

“The main thing was the spirit. We worked so hard on that music that no matter what the song credits say—who supposedly wrote what—you’d have to call it a full-bore effort by the group to show what we were all about.”

And in interviews he sharpens that further, claiming that the lyrics might be about sixty percent Robbie’s, the rest is written by Danko and Manuel and a bit by himself, and that the music should be for a large part on Garth Hudson’s account.

Oddly enough, no one mentions Dylan’s influence. That’s also noticeable in the otherwise captivating episode “The Band” in the series Classic Albums (1997), a very successful television documentary series that highlights the ins and outs of classic rock albums for an hour. Actually, this episode focuses on the “brown album“, The Band from 1969, but in fact it has become a kind of mini documentary about the first two albums and the Big Pink-experience at all. Here too, the name Dylan barely stands out, and not at all in relation to the songs the men from The Band write there in that big pink house.

The peculiar Garth Hudson, who does speak out about Dylan’s influence in 2012, is hardly present in this documentary. The documentary makers do try it, up to two times even, but Hudson continues to play jazzy chords and funky riffs half in a trance deep over his keys. Garth talks with music.

Recognition of the influence of Dylan’s songs is at most indirectly spoken, by Levon Helm, not coincidentally in response to the success of “The Weight”:

“Of course, the Dylan connection helped. The funny thing was, when Capitol sent out a blank-label acetate of Big Pink to press and radio people, everyone assumed ‘The Weight’ was the Dylan song on the album. The Band fooled everyone except themselves.”

Levon finds it funny that everyone thinks “The Weight” was written by Dylan, but of course it’s rather obvious. The opening lines are a copy of the opening lines of “Lo And Behold!”, the song features Basement-like supporting characters like Old Luke and Crazy Chester, and in idiom and less tangible features like colour and atmosphere, songs like “Tiny Montgomery”, “Million Dollar Bash” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” resonate.

This is true for most of the songs of Music From The Big Pink; lines to the Dylan songs and the covers the men have heard, played and recorded over the past few months are easy to find. In the beautiful “To Kingdom Come” for example, in a quatrain like

Don't you say a word
Or reveal a thing you've learned
Time will tell you well
If you truly, truly fell

…in which pieces of “Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”, “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “Odds And Ends” resonate. Or the boisterous rhyme, alliteration and rhythm fun of “Caledonia Mission”:

She reads the leaves and she leads the life
That she learned so well from the old wives
It's so strange to arrange it, you know I wouldn't change it
But hear me if you're near me, can I just rearrange it?

…which Robertson would never have written if he hadn’t heard “To Ramona” dozens of times, if he hadn’t experienced twenty takes of “Fourth Time Around” or hadn’t witnessed how Dylan dashes off “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”.

“Yazoo Street Scandal” is a “Tombstone Blues” 2.0, and just as Dylanesque sounds “Chest Fever”:

I know she's a tracker, any scarlet would back her
They say she's a chooser, but I just can't refuse her
She was just there, but then she can't be here no more
And as my mind unweaves, I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves, she receives

 …an eloquent rhyming, rhythmic barrage à la “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

In 2000 Capitol Records releases the remastered versions of the first four albums (Music From The Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots). Band biographer Barney Hoskyns writes extensive, rich and loving liner notes for all four albums, but these are rejected by Capitol and/or Robbie Robertson and Canadian music professor Rob Bowman is recruited to write new ones.

Hoskyns publishes his rejected liner notes on Rock’s Backpages and opens the door to the slightly paranoid suspicion that Robertson has dismissed those lyrics because Dylan is too prominent in them; alone in the liner notes to the first record, Music From The Big Pink, the name “Dylan” is mentioned eighteen times and his impact is fully acknowledged and articulated.

Rick Danko says they wouldn’t have been more than a pub band if Dylan hadn’t given them the freedom to develop and that those “one hundred and fifty songs we recorded in about seven, eight months led us to start getting our writing chops together – we started learning how to write songs.”

Robertson is quoted as saying it was on Dylan’s insistence that The Band started recording at all:

“There was nothing that we had to do, no obligations. But Bob had been wanting us to record for a long time, and our fun was beginning to run out. We needed to take care of business a little.”

Hoskyns further argues that the unfashionable, traditional, rootsy arranging and production technique is a result of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and calls Robertson’s song “To Kingdom Come” (admiring) Dylanesque.

It all doesn’t detract from the beauty of both albums, from Music From The Big Pink and The Band, obviously. The men are widely recognized as the founders of the successful music movement Americana, still winning new fans half a century later and in 2018 the anniversary release, the 50th Anniversary Edition, the “CD Super Deluxe Box” with six outtakes and alternative versions, is once again a success.

But downplaying, covering up, ignoring Dylan’s influence, “our fearless leader” (according to Robertson), remains a bit peculiar.

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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7 Responses to Dylan pulling The Band into Nazareth II: who wrote what?

  1. Elena Brodskaya says:

    Why don’t you stick to reviews Dylan’s work and his work only. I wouldn’t trust Levon and his toxic butt hurt sensibilities about who wrote what as far as I could throw him. Robbie wrote The Weight. Period. Full stop. Was there a Dylan influence? Undoubtedly. Did anyone else from The Band contribute? Given their history of drug and alcohol abuse and car wrecks at the time, and later it is seriously doubtful. Robbie’s been writing songs since he’s 15 and he could more than hold his own with the likes of Dylan. But to say that Dylan is responsible for the song is an outrageous claim unto itself. Maybe you’ll startsaying that he needs to claim royalties for it too? Please spare us your opinions and let this seemingly endless embattled topic die a peaceful death.

  2. Of course it was Dylan’s influence. They were a raucous bar band, went through the fiery furnace of the Dylan Experience, and came out with Music From Big Pink!

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    I don’t limit our writers’ coverage because I believe that sharing a wide range of views is helpful. My view is that our readers are quite able to decide what to read and what to accept and believe, as well as which articles to avoid, and which points of view are unhelpful. For me to censor articles or only publish those following a particularly line, would, in my view as publisher, reduce the value of the site dramatically. Indeed I think the astonishing growth in popularity of this site over the years is largely because of the diversity of views and analyses that we publish.
    Quite what the value is in not publishing well-argued articles that follow a particular line, which don’t break any laws, I can’t understand at all. All the articles are free to read, no one has to read them, and if someone did start reading something that they found distasteful, unhelpful or untrue, they can stop.
    What’s more, because every article has the name of the author at the top, such a reader who wished to utilise the site but avoid the views of a particular author, can readily do so.
    The alternative is a way of restricting debate, and that I am wholly against. But of course there are many other Dylan websites that do only follow particular line of thought, and so every reader here has a complete choice as to where she or he goes, and what he or she reads.
    Tony Attwood, publisher, Untold Dylan

  4. Canute says:

    Fascinating and it seems truthful piece of writing by Jochen Markhorst … I think she sheds a bright light on what happened inside the Hawks and where things went wrong and Manuel, Danko amd Hudson were robbed – not of money, exactly but of more creative elements of their work with Rortson who seemed to want all the light to fall on him ….that happed, but for some of us it created ugly shadows and still live on.

  5. Roderick Murray says:

    There is not a doubt that more than just Robbie wrote a bunch of the songs….but it was his ass that did the research and motivated….while the boys did agree that it was all for one and one for all…..Robbie wound up getting influenced about the cash for writing….Coldplay has credit for writing done the right way….i miss Levon!

  6. Sam Oldam says:

    Robertson is the only one with any song writing credits of any note after the Band’s breakup. Tells you all you need to know. Arranging is not writing.

  7. Jochen Markhorst says:

    As I tried to express in the above article, I certainly do not grant myself any authority on the question of who wrote what. What I do have, however, is an opinion on the weird, clumsy way in which Dylan’s influence is ignored and downplayed in documentaries, liner notes and memoirs. I would say that that influence is rather self-evident and quite obvious – and surely not something you should be embarrassed about. To name just one other example: Robbie plays with Dylan in the Basement “Lo And Behold” with the opening line I pulled out for San Anton’, I never felt so good and writes two months later as the opening line for “The Weight”: I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout half past dead… it seems hardly debatable that there’s an inspiration.
    Which is not blameworthy or culpable; quite on the contrary. Good poets steal, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. It is rather strange though, again, that the name “Dylan” has been removed from those original liner notes and is hardly mentioned in that TV documentary.
    Anyway, everyone may have, obviously, their own opinion hereon.

    I really do have to contradict Sam, though (“Robertson is the only one with any song writing credits of any note after the Band’s breakup”). That is absolutely incorrect. Every song on Rick Danko’s first solo album is credited to Danko’s name, for example, just as Garth Hudson’s solo albums are filled with his own songs. Levon Helm has written few songs, that’s true. He shares about three, four song credits (“Growin’ Trade” together with Larry Campbell, is one – which really is a very nice, very Band-like song).
    If I had to choose, I would take Rick Danko’s record (1977) to my Desert Island – great songs, great musicians, great overall mood. “Java Blues” features a wonderful guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, by the way.

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