When several Canadian bandmates jammed with Arkansa-born musician Levon Helm, The Band was formed and they began their long journey from their hit album Music from Big Pink to their final ride called “The Last Waltz.” Headed up by songwriter Robbie Robertson, the roots-rock group combined genres ranging from country and folk to jazz and R&B like never before.
While their abilities on their respective instruments, from drums and electric guitar to more eclectic choices like organ and horn, were truly distinctive, their three-part harmonies and ability to trade off lead seamlessly set them apart.
From tackling history’s biggest moments like the American Civil War to touching on classic subject matter like love and loneliness, The Band produced a remarkable sound throughout the ’70s that left a permanent mark on the decade’s musical culture. Now, we take a few minutes to highlight the best songs by The Band below.
11. Acadian Driftwood
A recording that highlights The Band’s work as a tightly unified ensemble, songwriter and co-frontman Robbie Robertson tells the historical story of the battle for Nova Scotia. Most of the band members were from Canada, so the Acadian Migration, a result of British and French forces’ fight over land in the 1600s, was of great interest to them. Bringing in guest violinist Byron Berline, he backs up Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko, who all shared vocal work for this narrative musical tale. ‘Acadian Driftwood’ is a wonderful look into what made the group’s individual talents so unique when they showcased them together as a unit.
10. Chest Fever
The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, was met with high critical praise. Appearing on that seminal 1968 tour de force is ‘Chest Fever,’ a moody, organ-driven, grooving piece that highlighted the group’s penchant for experimentation. The beginning of the song contains a lengthy organ solo executed by Garth Hudson that sets the tone well. Known as the “secret weapon” for this song, his skillful ability with the keys was the main reason they chose the instrument-heavy number as their opener for their final set at the infamous Woodstock Festival in ’69.
Recommended: Our special on the songs from Woodstock.
9. Bessie Smith
Among the group’s top hits and early releases, a truly one-of-a-kind gem that stands out from the pack is ‘Bessie Smith,’ a fan-favorite pick for this roots rock-oriented countdown. Before The Band ever became, well, “The Band,” they earned their stripes as folk icon Bob Dylan’s newly electrified backing band while on tour. Their work together in a live setting translated well to the studio. The boys recorded two albums with Dylan, including The Basement Tapes, which this gentle rhythmic rocker is featured on. The nostalgia-heavy lyrical story pays tribute to one of America’s most famous, pioneering blues singers, Ms. Bessie Smith.
8. Whispering Pines
Overflowing with melancholy and longing, ‘Whispering Pines’ was one of The Band’s most defining tracks, even though it wasn’t one of their bigger hits. The tune impressed upon listeners everything that made the group one of the 1970s’ most sought-after acts. Painting vivid pictures of vast oceans and swaths of trees that are so popular in several bandmembers’ native country of Canada, listeners and critics alike praised the emotive tune as “…one of the Band’s most beautiful songs” ever written.
7. Rag Mama Rag
A shuffling, countryfied hit overseas, ‘Rag Mama Rag’ was wildly popular on European charts after its ’69 release. Drummer Levon Helm held down vocals for the fun number, which features him singing to a special lady-friend over sawing fiddle and his grooving drum work. Helm was the perfect pick for vocals for this particular release. While other members hailed from Canada, his languid southern drawl sprung right out of the Arkansas hills, and it added a whole new element to the group, who often utilized his southern roots for their historically-driven songs and country-western instrumentation.
The Band fluidly expanded the scope of their musicianship with ‘Ophelia,’ a funky, off-beat strutter with plenty of hork work that came to be a shining part of their legacy. Helm commands the mic as lead singer yet again for the single, which finds him singing to a lover who’s up and left him. As the timekeeper of the group, his vocal work happened behind his drum kit, but that unique setup only added to his intrigue as he belted out words while also playing captain with the rhythm. The band stuck to their southern roots rock vibe with this one, making listeners feel like they’re lazing about the French Quarter in New Orleans while wondering if Ophelia will ever turn up, and head home to her pining lover.
5. It Makes No Difference
Another heartbreak tune with old-time country flare, bassist Rick Danko sang lead on ‘It Makes No Difference,’ with the bandmate’s crisp harmonies elevating the laidback choruses. If you ask band member Robbie Robertson, he wrote all the tunes. But if you ask Helm, or any number of others, they’ll hint at their creative process being a constant collaborative effort. For this live version, featured during their final band concert titled “The Last Waltz” and a Scorcese-directed documentary by the same name, Robertson was exploring the common saying that “time heals all wounds.” For him, this song represents a particular time when that wasn’t the case. The open-ended lyrics backed by beautiful electric guitar leave the listeners to wonder what exactly it was that left him a bit broken.
4. The Shape I’m In
A rhythmical, upbeat track, ‘The Shape I’m In’ will probably have you in a good mood when you listen to it because of its invigorating energy. However, when Robertson penned the track he actually had the late bandmate Richard Manuel in mind, who spent most of his life battling depression. Manuel, Helm, and Danko all masterfully contributed vocals and harmonies to the funky track. The Band once again experimented with sound while recording. Instead of a traditional piano anchoring the song’s progression, Manuel played a Calvinet, which has a more percussive sound than a piano, and is sometimes subbed in for acoustic guitar when tackling rhythm parts.
3. Up On Cripple Creek
The eclectic clavinet instrument is back in full force on The Band’s big hit, ‘Up On Cripple Creek.’ The downhome tune headed up by Helm tells the folksy story of a travelin’ man in love with a mountain queen named “Bessie” who he visits any chance he gets. They hesitated to release it on their self-titled album. None of the members felt it was up to par with their sound. But they stuck with it and fattened it up, added in their signature harmonies to the catchy chorus. Now one of their best-known tracks, they chose it as their performance piece for their only appearance on the popular TV program, The Ed Sullivan Show.
2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The B-side choice for their ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ release, as much success as they had with that folksy single, The Band had even more with ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ Rivaling the story-telling abilities of folk legend Bob Dylan himself, Robertson wrote the epic tale after visiting Helm’s native Arkansas and being inspired by the South’s rich history. Though Robertson wrote it, it felt more natural for Helm to take over lead vocals, his southern drawl and connection to the area giving way to an especially stirring performance. The slow-groove track follows a fictional character, Virgil Cain, and his plight during the Civil War. A lyrical masterpiece, the narrative tune would go on to become a cult classic among ’70s rock enthusiasts.
Recommended: Our playlist of songs with lyrics about history.
1. The Weight
An essential classic rock single, ‘The Weight’ went on to become The Band’s most enduring effort despite its slow rise to fame. While it wasn’t a huge hit upon its initial release, the song’s fabled story about a man heading to “Nazareth” while coming to terms with not being able to fulfill all the promises he told loved ones he’d keep, and the group’s inspired harmony work gave the tune an evergreen feel. Its timeless quality meant ‘The Weight’ would outlast the band itself, continuing to receive airplay and being featured in films, notably the cult movie, Easy Rider (which you can hear on our Easy Rider soundtrack songs special). Released on their much-praised early album, Music from Big Pink, the introspective track became an early staple for the group, always included in their set lists and a defining feature of their final official performance together recorded for the documentary project, “The Last Waltz.”
Recommended: Our pick of the top songs of the 60s.