Upstate Utopia: Music from Big Pink at 50

A half-century later, The Band’s classic debut and the cheap rental house it was conceived in remain the twin beacons of hope for aspiring musicians migrating to Ulster County, NY

Iconic image of 2188 Stoll Rd from back cover of Music from Big Pink /Photo remix by Ron Hart

During the early hours of July 1st, as night bled into morning, 20 or so friends sat around a campfire in the clearing at the middle of their treehouse community and parsed the meaning of The Band classic, “The Weight.”

The Root’s base camp, approximately 50 miles West of Albany in the Mohawk Valley and accessible only by traversing a decent-sized portion of the property’s ten-plus acres, heading past the silo and barn then down into and up through a valley, was a picturesque place for congregation on any given weekend. Gathered around at base camp, the main artery of The Root’s stated project-oriented mission to transform these woods into an arena for creativity, there was not a fireside seat wasted.

We weren’t the first to do this, sure, but singing together in the early hours of July 1st, 2018, we paid homage to those who were. This evening marked a particularly special anniversary only apparent to the most overly analytical man in the group, this music journalist. Fifty years prior, to the day, The Band released “The Weight” alongside a slew of other instant classics on their debut, Music from Big Pink, pushing back against a counterculture that thought it could only gleam mythical, spiritual wisdom from Eastern appropriation and instead rewriting the American songbook down in the basement of tacky, pale pink house in West Saugerties, New York.

With Big Pink, The Band unwittingly created a fortified genre of Americana and put upstate New York on the map as a prominent scene for explorations of morality, consciousness and the inner landscape of the self. They also proved that there were enough off characters and stories around to lay a foundation for holistic, backwoods mythology that didn’t require some exotic fetishization of other cultures or identities to exude wisdom.

“We were rebelling against rebellion,” The Band’s de-facto frontman, Robbie Robertson said years later.

Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm had already built up a strong report with each other as Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Hawks, during his transformation from wide-eyed acoustic folky to snarling, amphetamine-fortified electric rock and roller. While the group toured England with Dylan, confronting a staid British folk scene with speedy, reverb-drenched hillbilly kicks in front of a giant American flag backdrop, they were brazenly and confrontationally sharing their American identity, underscored by an urgency to tease out the depth and history that lay buried, like treasure, in the stories and lyrics of American myth.

After his much-publicized motorcycle crash in 1967, Dylan retreated from public view, leaving his backing band (still then known as the Hawks) with 60 cancelled tour dates, bumming around New York and looking for work. A couple of them went back to Canada, while Levon had been working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico since quitting the Dylan tour in ‘65, but the pressure to keep working was real.

The West Saugerties house referred to by locals as Big Pink proved to be a near-perfect incubator, if not one without its limitations— the hard surfaces and bouncing acoustics of its basement studio walls allowed for little of the country-fried electric rock and roll that the band has honed on the road with Dylan to flourish. Instead, the limitations of the space forced to alter their collaborative process and pay extra attention to both the song and the singer, playing around the words and the rhythms with a measured deliberateness that satisfied the emotions in the music instead of simply rocking out.

Removed from the urgency of protests, the hedonism of chemically induced mind expansion and the disquiet of youthful unrest, the band rebelled through self-imposed exile. Levon eventually came back into the fold, while Dylan, who also had a place just down the way on Camelot Road, came through to cut with regularity. He nonetheless co-wrote several of the songs, and his drawing of the house adorns the album’s cover.

These sessions, which came to became known as The Basement Tapes, first found the band covering old standards and traditionals before composing originals that instantly and seamlessly fit touched upon the vast canon of American music. Consider “Open the Door, Homer,” an evolution of the old minstrel tune “Open the Door, Richard” that morphs into a moralistic lesson not be fleeting nature of memory and warding off bad energy, or “Million Dollar Bash,” a scene report told from the eyes of a roustabout who has just crashed a fancy party with a certain Woody Guthrie-esque “truth to power” fitting of Dylan’s mentorship by the hallowed folkie, who would soon pass away that October.

The deep roots of Appalachian music, spirituals, soul, ragtime and Delta blues all fuse together on these sessions, as if the group is taking inventory of the sounds that encapsulate The American Experience to remind themselves that it still exists, even in times of removal and isolation.

The  songs that didn’t make it onto Big Pink would eventually see a non-bootleg release (some of them were culled together on the Great White Wonder bootleg, which was released in July ‘69 amd circulated for years before Columbia eventually released the official field recordings as Bob Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes in ‘75). But long before that, the contemporary avatars of folk country rock heads were already working these into their repertoire: The Byrds delivered knockout arrangements of “Nothing was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released just one month after Big Pink; Fairport Convention did a far more upbeat “Open The Door, Homer” that skimped on the original’s melancholy but lost none of its ethics; the late, great Karen Dalton would come to cover Richard Manuel’s “In a Station” on her own, infusing it with a somber and heartfelt sense of longing that matched Manuel’s and underscored the sadness in both of their lives.

By and large, the songs from these sessions that made it on Big Pink were the cream of the crop. When Dylan had gone down to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding in fall ‘67, the band banged out the seasons proper, tracking them in the basement before finishing them later at Capitol’s studio in LA.

The public was not prepared for the fiery rocking urgency of The Band’s past lives to be swapped out in place of slowed-down, thoughtful compositions. As Manuel sings Dylan-penned lyrics on opener “Tears of Rage”, the listener is presented with the ingredients that make up the album’s brilliance all at once—there’s an anticlimax that forces the listener to slow down and listen, a deliberate arrangement that lets every individual player be heard, and a heartland mystique packaged as an paradox to be chewed on—“We carried you in our arms on Independence Day”—all to refreshingly unordained, and devastatingly sincere effect.

“To Kingdom Come,” meanwhile, revels in its rustic, bucolic removal with an Old Testament mentality. The Band has seen a golden calf staring and an apocalypse looming, but still rollicks along to Manuel’s piano with a honkytonk that manages to preach but never sound didactic. “We Can Talk” explores the intricate factors impeding human communication before advocating for a more basic and elemental foundation of knowledge—“Honey, can you milk a cow?”

“Long Black Veil” tells the story of a man convicted of a murder he did not commit. all because his alibi would have exposed the affair he was having with his best friends wife. Perhaps Big Pink’s most unequivocally ethical screed, their version of the 1959 country ballad written by the team of Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin sounds as if it could have been written 100 years prior.

“This Wheel’s on Fire” might either sound like a haunted Western dirge or a comment on the cyclical nature of life and death as understood through Tibetan Buddhism, depending on who you ask. Either way, it sets up for Manuel’s arrestingly beautiful closing number “I Shall Be Released,” a song that has taken on an eerie sense of transcendent foreshadowing since Manuel took his own life in ‘86.

All told, it’s no wonder that Clapton said Music From Big Pink helped him decide to break up Cream, or that Richard Thompson said it inspired him to make Fairport Convention more unrepentantly British in the same way that The Band were unapologetically American. It’s no wonder, either, that Grateful Dead historians credit Big Pink as a major catalyst for the band’s celebrated roots period, beginning with 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and continuing through American Beauty and the myriad of original standards that would become forever immortalized during The Dead’s Europe ‘72 run. Listen to a song like “Brown-Eyed Woman” and hear Dead lyricist Robert Hunter doing exactly what The Band did—tapping into the ether of the American mythos, like The Beats before him, to write songs that would be forever beloved as new old standards, as instant traditionals. On top of this, The Dead or Jerry often covered “The Weight”, “Quinn, The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” and “I Shall Be Released”, to boot.

Up at our treehouse community called The Root, we knew we wouldn’t be the last ones seeking a retreat to hone our respective practices from an elemental place. Bon Iver weaved a cabin sojourn into the press narrative around his debut, while John Andrews still lives in a New Hampshire farm-turned-analog studio, offering his production services out of the bottom floor and throwing shows in his barn. We also understood something The Band learned as a happy accident—that working on your practice within the fixed limitations of a certain space helps focus both your intentions and strengthens the final output of your work.

My generation seems to be journeying upstate for creative projects far more these days, not just as a pressure release valve from the city but with the deliberacy of blurring the urban/rural divide and transforming distressed towns into hotbeds of creative incubation. When MASS MoCA opened in North Adams, MA, the town was reeling from a substantial drug problem. When Basilica opened in Hudson, the town was far more run-down than its myriad of reclaimed vintage furniture stores on Warren Street would currently suggest. In an age where many media jobs are partially, if not wholly remote, it behooves anyone capable of sitting with themselves and their ideas to find that Big Pink of their own, that sanctuary, for either solitude or congregation.

“So what do we think ‘The Weight’ is about?” Sarah asked the campfire that night, on the 50th Anniversary of Music From Big Pink. I knew Robbie Robertson wrote “The Weight” for Levon, to offer him a standout track on the album upon his return from the oil rig in The Gulf of Mexico, but it still doesn’t explain the myriad of characters, metaphors and bible allegories that make the song a wholly singular composition. Someone around the fire suggested that “The Weight” is about the evaporation of expectations, of learning to live without the ever-pressing worry of what others want for or need from you. Someone else suggested it was about freedom.

“I think it’s about laying your burden down,” said Sarah. We all listened intently as she spoke, sat there in silence for a minute, then started to sing.

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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