1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
A good number of folk and blues albums, genres that safely fit under the description of "Americana," are composed of new takes on standards, or traditional songs. We've already seen this with albums from Jack Elliott, Joan Baez and The Almanac Singers. It comes as a surprise to many that The Band doesn't fit into the same boat.
"The Band," the second album from the titular group, sounds about as authentic as any "roots rock" or southern rock group could. But, much like the similar Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band is from nowhere near Dixie. In fact, four of its members are from Canada, with only Arkansas native and drummer Levon Helm as a representative of the southern United States. The second surprise is that these tracks aren't standards; they were all written by Robbie Roberts, the group's Canadian guitarist. How a foreigner could feign the honest feelings of roots music this well is incredible.
The theme of the album is a mixture of southern folklore and issues that the region struggled with throughout different eras. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" details the last days of the Civil War from the struggling Confederate perspective, and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" tells of newfound farmer's unions during the Depression. Some songs, like the classic "Up On Cripple Creek" are just good ol' drinking tales.
The Band keeps things interesting by jumping between moods and musical styles associated with the south. "Jemima Surrender" is an upbeat song with a strong blues riff, whereas "Dixie" is a downbeat song with a strong blues mood. "Rag Mama Rag" incorporates old-timey barrelhouse piano playing to simulate the "rag" music style mentioned in the title. The group isn't stuck in the 19th century however; at times, it serves as a predecessor to the funk movement of the '70s, namely on opener "Across the Great Divide" and classic "Up On Cripple Creek."
"Cripple Creek," the story of a drunkard taking advantage of the graciousness of his female host, is the highlight of the album, much of it thanks to its touches of funk. The highlight of the song is Garth Hudson's playing of the clavinet, a keyboard instrument emphasizing staccato. By modulating the instrument with a way-wah pedal, Hudson helped popularize a form of bass that would become huge in the funk scene. The lyrics are almost as fun as the clavinet, which is saying something.
The appeal in standards is that they serve as accurate depictions of the eras and places they flow from, hence why many artists turn to them. Because of this, The Band's creation of these 12 tracks is doubly impressive. The group wasn't just geographically separated from the land of Dixie, it was chronologically separated as well. It's only fair to say that The Band created a new set of roots standards as well as any native artist could.
INTERESTING FACT: Robertson avoids live performances nowadays, but due to his friendship with Martin Scorcese, he has created scores for "Raging Bull," "Gangs of New York," and worked on "Shutter Island" as well.