Band – Rag Mama Rag

It doesn’t get much better than this. This wasn’t a huge hit but it doesn’t mean that much when it’s The Band.

The Band did this song by playing musical chairs with the instruments. Most of them grabbed something different than what they normally played. Levon (drummer) sang and played Mandolin, Richard Manuel (piano) played drums, Rick Danko (bass) played fiddle, Garth Hudson (keyboards) played uprigtht piano and producer John Simon played Tuba.

Robbie Robertson wrote the song and was the only one playing their normal instrument…guitar.

The song peaked at #57 in the Billboard 100, #46 in Canada, and #16 in the UK in 1970. The song was on their second album The Band.

Songfacts

One of the Band’s first big European hit singles, “Rag Mama Rag” has some unusual instrumentation. Lead pianist Richard Manuel played drums, drummer Levon Helm played mandolin and sang lead, and bassist Rick Danko played a fiddle. This left the bass spot open on this track, and it was filled by the album’s producer, John Simon. He improvised a bassline on tuba, although he had no idea how to play the instrument. >>

Robbie Robertson is the only songwriter credited on this track, although other members of the group claim they made contributions. The song finds Levon Helm trying to convince his girl to come back home so she can “rag all over” his house. What he has in mind in unclear: “rag” could mean playing ragtime music (a possibility, considering the line “rosin up the bow”), but he might have more prurient intentions.

Rag Mama Rag

Rag Mama rag, can’t believe its true.
Rag Mama Rag, what did you do?
Crawled up to the railroad track
Let the four nine-teen scratch my back

Sag mama sag now
What’s come over you
Rag Mama Rag, I’m a pulling out your gag.
Gonna turn you lose like an old caboose,
Got a tail I need a drag.

I ask about your turtle,
And you ask about the weather,
Well, I can’t jump the hurdle
And we can’t get together.

We could be relaxing in my sleeping bag,
But all you want to do for me mama
Is rag Mama rag there’s no-where to go,
Rag Mama rag. Come on resin up the bow.

Rag Mama rag, where do ya roam?
Rag Mama rag, bring your skinny little body back home.
Its dog eat dog and cat eat mouse, you can
You can rag Mama rag all over my house.

Hail stones beating on the roof,
The bourbon is a hundred proof,
Its you and me and the telephone
Our destiny is quite well known.

We don’t need to sit and brag.
All we gotta do is
Rag Mama rag Mama rag.
Rag Mama rag
Where do you roam?
Rag Mama rag, bring your skinny little body back home

Band – I Shall Be Released

There is a very solemn song with a religious hymnal feel to it. Richard Manuel sings this one with a slight mournful falsetto voice that is just pure as you can get. I Shall Be Released is not commercial, not meant to be a hit, sell a million copies, but just pure music at it’s best…there are no pretensions or gimmicks…this is the Band at one of it’s many peaks.

Bob Dylan wrote this in 1967 but it was not until 1971 on his Greatest Hits Vol. II album that his version was officially released. The Band, who backed up Dylan on his first electric tour, recorded it for Music From Big Pink, which was their first album. Their version is the most well-known.

Everyone under the sun has covered this song but the Band’s own rendition was released first and is probably the best known version.

The song was the B side to The Weight released in 1968. Music From The Big Ping peaked at #30 in the Billboard 100 and #18 in Canada. That wasn’t the biggest thing though…the album helped change the landscape of popular music from the psychedelic harder rock to more earthy roots music.

From Songfacts

This song could be either an anti-death penalty composition or a metaphoric attempt by Dylan at looking forward to being released from Hell on Earth – possibly awaiting the “release” from the hell of being an innocent man wrongly imprisoned.

In Robert Shelton’s biography No Direction Home, he gives the song a different meaning. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, when he was 25, he retreated from the spotlight. This was after he had suffered great disappointment at the reception his European and American tour dates brought. He’d been booed offstage, called a traitor, and attendance dropped at some of his concert dates. Dylan was seriously injured in the accident, and Shelton states that Dylan withdrew not only to recuperate, but to spend the time in self reflection, and with his family. He goes further, saying that the song represents Dylan’s search for personal salvation. 

This was featured in the 1987 Emmy-winning documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. 

Other artists to record this song include Bette Midler, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez, who performed the song at Woodstock while pregnant with her son, Gabriel. The Band also performed it during their set at the festival.

I Shall Be Released

They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

They say every man needs protection
They say that every man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Somewhere so high above this wall

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd
A man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shouting so loud
Just crying out that he was framed

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

The Band – The Shape I’m In

The first Band album I ever bought was The Best of The Band. When I heard “The Shape I’m In” I knew I was going to like them. I knew the hits of course but the songs I never heard of at that point were great. I then started to buy their albums and loving this band. The song was off on the album Stage Fright and was a B side to the song “Time To Kill.”

There is a great version on The Last Waltz which is below. Robbie wrote the song for Richard to sing and at that time Levon, Rick, and Richard were heavy into heroin and drinking. The song peaked at #64 in Canada.

Robbie Robertson talks some about writing this song

At one time, there was talk that if you wanted to play like the angels, you had to dance with the devil—that heroin was a gateway to music supremacy. That myth was yesterday, but the power of addiction was still in full force. It hit me hard that in a band like ours, if we weren’t operating on all cylinders, it threw the whole machine off course.
This was the first time that writing songs was painful for me. In some cases I couldn’t help but reflect on what was happening behind the curtain. I wrote “The Shape I’m In” for Richard to sing, “Stage Fright” for Rick, and “The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show” for Levon—all with undertones of madness and self-destruction. While watching Richard pound out the rhythm on the clavichord, I couldn’t help but see the irony as he sang out, “Oh, you don’t know, the shape I’m in.”

The Shape I’m In

Go out yonder, peace in the valley
Come downtown, have to rumble in the alley
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Has anybody seen my lady
This livin’ alone would drive me crazy
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

I’m gonna go down by the water
But I ain’t gonna jump in, no, no
I’ll just be lookin’ for my maker
And I hear that that’s where she’s been?

Oh, out of nine lives, I spent seven
Now, how in the world do you get to Heaven
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

I’ve just spent 60 days in the jail house
For the crime of having no dough, no no
Now here I am back out on the street
For the crime of having nowhere to go

Save your neck or save your brother
Looks like it’s one or the other
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Now two young kids might start a ruckus
You know they feel you’re tryin’ to shuck us
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Testimony

The autobiography of Robbie Robertson. I read this right after My Cross To Bear by Gregg Allman. The only surprising part is it stops at 1976 and doesn’t cover Robbie’s solo career.

Robbie is 33 when the book ends. It ends at a recording session where only Robbie shows up after The Last Waltz.

If you have read Levon Helm’s This Wheels on Fire you know that Levon was pretty hard on Robbie. He rips him for songwriting credits and The Last Waltz. Robbie takes the high road in his book. He talks about the brotherhood they all shared. He mentions that Levon was his best friend he ever had in his life.

Robbie was in the middle of musical history throughout the book. He talks about joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and befriending Levon…they eventually picked up Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. After they split with Ronnie they get busted and gigged at various bars while meeting music legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and then Bob Dylan. After meeting Dylan they start backing him on his first electric tour.

They are in the middle of the chaos of Dylan’s electric tour…Levon quits a few shows into it because of the booing and the people that surround Dylan. The rest of the Band (still called the Hawks) continue to back Dylan around the world. Along the way, they make friends with Brian Jones, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and eventually Jimi Hendrix (Jimmy James at the time).

He also mentions about living at the Chelsea Hotel, Big Pink, Levon coming back, living in Woodstock, playing Woodstock, and being friends with Dylan. This is one book that gives you a side of Dylan you never read much about. Robbie humanizes him while keeping respect. The Band much like the Allman Brothers valued brotherhood. They stuck together and got along really well until heroin started to enter the picture.

He goes into his songwriting and where he got the ideas. A lot of his ideas came from hanging out with Levon at Levon’s home in Arkansas. Robbie enjoyed the area and the southern culture that surrounded him.

Robbie is big foreign film buff who read many screenplays and would have people to pick them up when going through New York. After reading those he said it helped him to express what he felt in lyrics.

You get such a mix of personalities in the book… Edie Sedgwick, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, to smoking pot with John Lennon in the sixties with John’s special made “cigarettes.”

All of the Band had street smarts and mixed with killers, thieves and mafia members before they made it. They were without money at one point and Robbie and Levon were actually going to wear masks and hold up a high stakes poker game. It’s a wonder one of them wasn’t killed before the band met Dylan.

I’ve read both Levon’s and Robbie’s books. I liked them both. Robbie is more consistent in his telling. There is a reason Robbie wanted to get off the road. Richard Manuel was not in good shape…even on The Last Waltz and Robbie was no angel himself. The road brought temptations that were hard for them to resist.

If you are a Band fan and/or Dylan fan…get it. I would place this book up there with Keith Richard’s book Life. That is about the highest praise I can give…

 

 

The Band

Any band that calls themselves The Band…better be great…this band most certainly was… Four Canadians with one American who wrote and sang Americana music better than anyone.

They started out backing up Ronnie Hawkins in the early sixties… From there they backed up Bob Dylan on his famous conversion to “electric” music. They toured all over the world with Dylan getting booed because of the folk purists hate of Bob’s new electric direction. Levon left at the beginning of that tour but came back when they started to work on their own music.

They were a band in the best sense of the word. the members were Robbie Robertson who played guitar and was the main songwriter. Levon Helm who was the drummer and one of the three singers. Richard Manual played piano and was probably the best singer of the Band. Rick Danko the bass player and also singer and great at harmonies. Garth Hudson the keyboard player extraordinaire. They all could play other instruments…

They would switch up instruments and record at times just to get a different texture to their music.

They rented a house in West Saugerties New York…a big pink house and started to set up in the basement. Bob Dylan would come over and they would record demos.

Bob Dylan was a big influence on The Band. The Band also influenced Bob Dylan in the basement. He had never recorded outside of a studio before and it freed him up a bit. Those recordings were meant to be demos for other performers to sing but were heavily bootlegged so they were officially released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes” with songs by Dylan and The Band. The songs had pure raw energy and showed a sense of humor also.

They influenced everyone from Eric Clapton..who hid a secret desire to join them…to George Harrison and many more. Their first two albums (Music From Big Pink and The Band) were groundbreaking. They changed the musical landscape…the move from psychedelic to an older sounding looser type of music.

In 1974 Bob Dylan and the Band toured together again. The Band backed Dylan again but also played their own set. They released a live album of that tour called Before The Flood.

Some bands have great voices and tight harmonies. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Eagles to name a few but The Band’s harmonies were loose but at the same time just as tight in their own way. Their music sounded spontaneous but it was well crafted. They always left enough raw edge to keep it interesting.

Robbie Robertson’s words and melodies were Americana flowing through a Canadian who had part Jewish and Native-Canadian roots. He would read one movie screenplay after another. It helped him with his songwriting to express the images he had in his head. Robbie also took stories Levon told him of the south and shaped them into songs.

The Band was no frills…you were not going to see lasers or a Mick Jagger clone running about… they just played their music and did it well. They did not follow trends but they were not afraid to experiment especially Garth Hudson the keyboard player who was always playing with different sounds.

Songs like The Weight, Cripple Creek, The Shape I’m In, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag, This Wheels On Fire, Stage Fright and the list goes on. The songs still sound fresh and fit perfectly on their respective albums.

You can’t go wrong with a Band album but the ones I would recommend would be Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969).

The Greatest Hits album has the radio songs you know but you miss some great songs by not getting the original albums. The ultimate would be the 2005 release of the box set called A Musical History. It has everything the original band recorded.

They broke up in 1976 and played their last concert with all of the original members in a film called The Last Waltz…

Their music was always uniquely their own. This band earned their name…