Books & Culture

‘The Weight’ Worth Waiting For

The 50th anniversary performance of “The Weight” is universal not only in the diversity of the performers and their instruments made possible by technology. It reflects as well the universality of the Christian promise of Easter, one of repentance and renewal.

Last fall, this remarkable 50th anniversary video recording of Robbie Robertson’s 1969 hit song, “The Weight,” dazzled viewers with its international cast of performers. Easter inspires further exploration of the religious depth of the country lyrics.

Canadian Robertson has long been fascinated by the South, with its heritage of the Bible, tragedy, ancestral ties, and regional pride, as seen in his 1968 “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” (for which he recently came under fire from the P.C. police).

The Weight” begins with a particular place but culminates in a universal call to human self-knowledge. The title signals that this is a tale about burdens—and their ultimate relief.

pulled in to Nazareth
Was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head
“Hey, mister, can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand
And “No” was all he said

The first line’s reference of arriving in Nazareth, where Jesus practiced his ministry, alerts us to the request that we share the ultimate burden, the cross of Jesus. (Nazareth, Pennsylvania, which has been named as the town where the song is set, is several miles north of Bethlehem, Penn.)

The Christian allusions help explain the riveting chorus:

Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and, and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me)

Bearing Fanny’s load is none other than Jesus:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

The yoke is a double yoke, shared by Jesus and he who would be His friend and companion. Jesus will help us bear our crosses. That is the story told by “The Weight.”

“Fanny” here is not the derrière, but more a reminder of Annie or Anna (“Annie” preceded by “off” will sound like “Fanny.” Anna is the old prophetess who predicted that the baby Jesus would redeem the world (Luke 2:36-39). Anna was married for seven years, then was widowed and lived and prayed in the temple for decades after. Anna’s burden of waiting for the salvation of Israel is now relieved. This song is a reminder of our constant duty of not disappointing (F)anny.

The unnamed narrator will be a savior of a different kind—of his own soul and of another. Each of the song’s five stanzas recalls an encounter involving Jesus, at different phases of his life. Do we, whether among the righteous or not, see Jesus in our fellow humanity? “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?” (Matthew 25:35-43)

As astonished as the righteous may be when they show mercy to strangers, in doing so they recognize “the other” as Jesus.

This is abundantly clear in the first stanza. The weary narrator, despite a friendly greeting, is denied a bed to sleep in, recalling Mary and Joseph having to make do in a stable. The baby Jesus’ crib, as unsuited a place for a putative son of God as imaginable, reminds us of the cross he would receive at the end of his life.

We must learn to bear our crosses, just as the narrator must.

In the second stanza the narrator, just as Jesus did next in the Gospels, has to fight off temptations of the Devil, but like Jonah he also tries to hide the baggage of his past.

I picked up my bag
I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil
Walking side by side

The Devil denies us the pleasure we would seek with Carmen “downtown;” and she leaves, giving the Devil free rein.

I said “Hey Carmen, come on
Let’s go downtown?”
And she said, “I gotta go
But my friend can stick around”

The chorus reminds that Jesus, victorious over the Devil’s temptations of pleasure, power, and pride, will share our burdens and thus remove temptation by replacing it with love of Christ.

The next stanza, the third, contains the most explicit biblical references.

Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day
Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?
He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t ya stay and keep Anna Lee company?

“Go down, Miss Moses” recalls God’s supporting Moses against Pharoah in liberating the Jews from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 8:ff.). The escaped slave and abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman was known as Miss Moses. But it’s not the case, “there’s nothin’ you can say.” Like the Prophetess Anna of Luke’s Gospel (2:36ff.), Luke waiting for Judgment Day, signals obstinate but futile behavior. But both Harriet Tubman and the Prophetess Anna received the rewards of their work and prayers—the liberation of the slaves and the coming of the Messiah. Young Luke is asked to wait again with Anna.

The fourth stanza describes Crazy Chester’s offer to exchange “Jack, my dog” for a bed (a “rack”) or his own “rack” on the cross. In answer to the narrator’s protests, Chester replies, “feed him when you can.”

Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
He said, “I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog.”
I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”

Crazy Chester is Christ on his Cross, telling his mother “Woman, behold your son” and to his beloved discipline John, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27). Addressed as “woman,” Mary is to care for John, and faithful John/Jack is to care for his new mother, the new Eve, mother of all humanity.

In the Gospel this curt address as “woman” is anticipated in Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. There he turned water into wine and addressed his mother, who had asked him to keep the party merry, as “woman” (John 2:1-11). Jesus’ first and last miracles are linked to the rebirth of his mother as the new Eve.

So, also, will the narrator’s fate be linked to this rebirth.

The narrator’s insistence that he is a “peaceful man” may seem odd—but he is merely repeating Jesus’ offering of “peace” to his disciples, when they are disturbed by his resurrected presence. He accepts Jack/John as part of his family—a new kind of burden but a wonderful one.

Now the song’s title—not mentioned in the lyrics—becomes even clearer. “The Weight” is also the “Wait” for the Messiah, and it is also our “wait” for the return of Christ.

Finally, the fifth stanza ties together these themes and points toward the future.

Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone

The Cannonball train will whisk him back to his starting-point. The reference takes us beyond small-town Pennsylvania to the whole of America. The first lines of “The Wabash Cannonball” are “From the great Atlantic ocean/To the wide Pacific shore.”

The weight of his bag, now filled with his new dog Jack, makes him want to depart and return to Miss Fanny, “Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.” That is, Jesus came “for everyone.” The narrator has replicated the experience of Jesus without actually having been crucified. He can now live for everyone, that is, spread the Good News to everyone.

The 50th anniversary performance of “The Weight” is universal not only in the diversity of the performers and their instruments made possible by technology. It reflects as well the universality of the Christian promise of Easter, one of repentance and renewal. The universal lyrics reinforce what the mere diverse bodies and voices of the performers only isolate. This reflection on the human condition allows us to recognize the divine within us—or accept that we are even less than dogs.

Diseases, trade, terrorism, and technology are universal but so is Christianity, though its force today has gone unacknowledged. As we obsess about medical technology we suffering servants of mere humanity, so preoccupied with threats to our bodies, need to recollect the hope of the divine spark in our souls. “Unload your burden on the Lord” (Psalm 55).

And take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and, and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me).