Robbie Robertson of the Band talks about writing the much-covered 1968 classic, sung by Levon Helm. Was it “Take a load off ‘Annie’ or ‘Fannie’?
One of the highlights of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” which documents the Band’s farewell concert in 1976, is a performance of “The Weight.” Rather than use the concert version, the director shot it on an MGM soundstage with the Staple Singers joining in for a rousing, roots-gospel rendition.
The enigmatic song about a traveler, the characters he meets and the burdens he assumes first appeared on the Band’s 1968 album “Music From Big Pink.” Since then, hundreds of artists have recorded “The Weight,” including Aretha Franklin (with Duane Allman), Jackie DeShannon, Mavis Staples and the Grateful Dead.
Robbie Robertson of the Band, who recently released his memoir “Testimony” (Crown Archetype) and a companion music anthology (UMe) along with a 40th anniversary edition of “The Last Waltz” (Rhino), talked about the standard’s evolution and a resolution to the longstanding question of whether it is “take a load off Annie”—or “Fanny.” Edited from an interview:
Robbie Robertson: I wrote “The Weight” in late 1967 in a house I was renting in Woodstock, N.Y. All of us in the Band had been living up there while playing and recording the “Basement Tapes” with Bob [Dylan]. We played at a pink house in nearby West Saugerties that we called Big Pink.
Prior to moving to Woodstock, I lived at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Poet Gregory Corso, who was staying there, urged me to check out the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th St.
The bookshop was a dusty, funky place owned by Fanny Steloff that sold used and new books. After looking around, I found that the store also stocked movie scripts. I loved film, and had long wondered how plot elements in a film fit together. These scripts were like blueprints.
The script that punched me between the eyes was Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for his 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal.” Luis Buñuel’s scripts for “Nazarín” and “Viridiana,” which examine the impossibility of sainthood, also captivated me.
Up in Woodstock in ’67, images from all these scripts were stirring around in my head. The Band was just finishing up with Bob and we had already written enough songs for “Music From Big Pink.” But I wanted one more as a fallback, just in case.
Our drummer and singer Levon Helm had just returned after spending nearly two years away from the music business. I wanted to write a song that Levon could sing better than anyone in the world.
One night in Woodstock, upstairs in my house in a workspace next to my bedroom, I picked up my 1951 Martin D-28 acoustic guitar to write a song. I turned the guitar around and looked in the sound hole.
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There, I saw a label that said “Nazareth, Pennsylvania,” the town where Martin was based. For some reason, seeing the word “Nazareth” unlocked a lot of stuff in my head from “Nazarin” and those other film scripts.
Once I had a few chords written, I sang, “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead.” I didn’t have any grand story planned. I don’t even know where the melody came from or the chord structure.
As for the words, I just knew I wanted characters to unload their burdens on the song’s main character in each verse. The guy in my song starts by asking the first person he sees in Nazareth about a place to stay the night, a biblical concept.
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The chorus I came up with was, “Take a load off Fanny”—not Annie, as many people think. I’m not sure I had the Gotham’s owner in mind when I used “Fanny.” But her name was certainly buried back there in my imagination. “Fanny” just felt rhythmic.
“Take a load off and put it right on me” also was pure Buñuel. Once you lend a hand and assume someone else’s burden, you’re involved. “Carmen and the devil walkin’ side by side” is from “The Seventh Seal” and the chess game with Death.
As the song’s words came to me, I wrote them on my portable typewriter. I got used to typing lyrics from Bob [Dylan]. I never saw him write anything with a pen or pencil. He’d make little corrections on his typed pages, but everything he wrote initially went through his typewriter.
There was no magic to this process. It was just that Bob knew how to type. He had taken typing in school.
“Crazy Chester” was based on someone I saw in Fayetteville, Ark., when I was 16. There was this guy in a wheelchair who was kind of nuts. He’d roll into the town square, and when girls went by, he’d call out, “Hoocha, baby, hoocha.” It was like a tic.
Chester was stuck in my head. The only major change I made in the entire song was the name of Chester’s dog. Originally, I named the dog “Hamlet,” after [bassist] Rick Danko’s dog at Big Pink. I changed it to “Jack” because Hamlet didn’t sing right.
When the Band got together to rehearse at Big Pink in late ’67, I had a basic chord structure, a melody and words. I taught that to everybody. At some point during rehearsals, I stumbled across Levon adjusting his drumheads and the sounds they made. I had him loosen the heads so when he hit them, the sound would slide to another tonality.
The only tricky part came at the end of each chorus, when I wanted the guys to sing “and, and, and—you put the load, you put the load right on me.” The harmony parts took a few minutes for everyone to feel.
We recorded “The Weight” in early 1968 at New York’s A&R Studios. We set up in a circle. We couldn’t record in isolation booths with headphones—we needed to look at each other and lock in. We were used to sitting around playing together in Big Pink’s living room and basement, and hearing everybody at once.
Our engineer, Don Hahn, warned us we’d sound terrible in a circle, since our instruments and voices would bleed into each other’s microphones. [Producer] John Simon asked if the studio had mikes that would pick up only what was in front of them.
Don suggested the Electro-Voice RE15. It was a directional mike that wouldn’t pick up anything around you. They put RE15’s on just about every instrument, and the result sounded really good.
I decided to open the song with my Martin D-28, playing these Curtis Mayfield-like licks before the band came in. But the Martin D-28 can be a little boomy, so we moved my mike behind the guitar, to give it an old, nasally sound.
In the studio, my decision to have Rick step forward to sing the Crazy Chester verse came out of nowhere. It just seemed like a refreshing change to have a new character voice enter the narration. I sang it for Rick so he’d know what I was thinking, and he got it.
At the end of the verse, Levon jumped back in with a “yeah!” and sang the last verse—“Catch a Cannonball now, to take me down the line”—with Rick singing background on certain words, which picked things up to another level.
Our original intent was to have the song end abruptly on an unexpected chord. It created suspense and felt fresh. In some ways, the ending was cinematic, like those movies that end in a freeze frame. The listener is forced to hear the final chord that isn’t played.
At the Woodstock festival in August 1969, we performed on Sunday, the last day, at 10 p.m. I’d never seen anything like it. There were a half-million people out there in the dark rootin’ and tootin’. They wanted excitement. Our set was more subdued.
When we played “The Weight” toward the end, you could feel a beautiful somber mood come over the place. It felt like we caused the audience to feel nostalgic for period they never actually experienced.
I’ve lost track of how many cover versions of the song there are. The funny thing is nobody knows what the song is about. So why other artists would bother to record it has always mystified me.
My favorite version was the one the Staple Singers recorded for Stax in ’68 soon after “Music From Big Pink” came out. The way their voices came together, it was like a train in the distance.
Before we performed with the Staples for “The Last Waltz” documentary in ‘76, Pops Staples asked me, “Robbie, what’s this song actually about?” I said, “Pops, you know as well as I do.” He looked at me, laughed and said, “Go down Moses.”
As we performed, Pops sang by sliding to the notes and his daughters’ voices slid right behind his. That was beautiful. It was like doing God’s work. And maybe that’s what motivated the song in the first place.
More covers of ‘The Weight’:Jackie DeShannon, 1968 (with a then-unknown Barry White on backing vocals) Mavis Staples rehearses the song with Wilco and Nick Lowe, 2011 The Grateful Dead, 1990
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