DiscoverA History of Rock Music in 500 SongsEpisode 167: “The Weight” by The Band
Episode 167: “The Weight” by The Band

Episode 167: “The Weight” by The Band

Update: 2023-08-143


Episode one hundred and sixty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “The Weight" by the Band, the Basement Tapes, and the continuing controversy over Dylan going electric. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a half-hour bonus episode available, on "S.F. Sorrow is Born" by the Pretty Things.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at and

Also, a one-time request here -- Shawn Taylor, who runs the Facebook group for the podcast and is an old and dear friend of mine, has stage-three lung cancer. I will be hugely grateful to anyone who donates to the GoFundMe for her treatment.


At one point I say "when Robertson and Helm travelled to the Brill Building". I meant "when Hawkins and Helm". This is fixed in the transcript but not the recording.


There are three Mixcloud mixes this time. As there are so many songs by Bob Dylan and the Band excerpted, and Mixcloud won’t allow more than four songs by the same artist in any mix, I’ve had to post the songs not in quite the same order in which they appear in the podcast. But the mixes are here — one, two, three.

I’ve used these books for all the episodes involving Dylan:

Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties by Elijah Wald, which is recommended, as all Wald’s books are.

Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon is a song-by-song look at every song Dylan ever wrote, as is Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.

Heylin also wrote the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades.

I’ve also used Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, which is less accurate, but which is written by someone who knew Dylan.

Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan is a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography.

Information on Tiny Tim comes from Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim by Justin Martell.

Information on John Cage comes from The Roaring Silence by David Revill

Information on Woodstock comes from Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns.

For material on the Basement Tapes, I've used Million Dollar Bash by Sid Griffin.

And for the Band, I've used This Wheel's on Fire by Levon Helm with Stephen DavisTestimony by Robbie Robertson, The Band by Craig Harris and Levon by Sandra B Tooze.

I've also referred to the documentaries No Direction Home and Once Were Brothers.

The complete Basement Tapes can be found on this multi-disc box set, while this double-CD version has the best material from the sessions. All the surviving live recordings by Dylan and the Hawks from 1966 are on this box set.

There are various deluxe versions of Music From Big Pink, but still the best way to get the original album is in this twofer CD with the Band's second album.


Just a brief note before I start – literally while I was in the middle of recording this episode, it was announced that Robbie Robertson had died today, aged eighty. Obviously I've not had time to alter the rest of the episode – half of which had already been edited – with that in mind, though I don't believe I say anything disrespectful to his memory. My condolences to those who loved him – he was a huge talent and will be missed.

There are people in the world who question the function of criticism. Those people argue that criticism is in many ways parasitic. If critics knew what they were talking about, so the argument goes, they would create themselves, rather than talk about other people's creation. It's a variant of the "those who can't, teach" cliche.

And to an extent it's true. Certainly in the world of rock music, which we're talking about in this podcast, most critics are quite staggeringly ignorant of the things they're talking about. Most criticism is ephemeral, published in newspapers, magazines, blogs and podcasts, and forgotten as soon as it has been consumed -- and consumed is the word .

But sometimes, just sometimes, a critic will have an effect on the world that is at least as important as that of any of the artists they criticise. One such critic was John Ruskin.

Ruskin was one of the preeminent critics of visual art in the Victorian era, particularly specialising in painting and architecture, and he passionately advocated for a form of art that would be truthful, plain, and honest. To Ruskin's mind, many artists of the past, and of his time, drew and painted, not what they saw with their own eyes, but what other people expected them to paint. They replaced true observation of nature with the regurgitation of ever-more-mannered and formalised cliches. His attacks on many great artists were, in essence, the same critiques that are currently brought against AI art apps -- they're just recycling and plagiarising what other people had already done, not seeing with their own eyes and creating from their own vision.

Ruskin was an artist himself, but never received much acclaim for his own work. Rather, he advocated for the works of others, like Turner and the pre-Raphaelite school -- the latter of whom were influenced by Ruskin, even as he admired them for seeing with their own vision rather than just repeating influences from others.

But those weren't the only people Ruskin influenced. Because any critical project, properly understood, becomes about more than just the art -- as if art is just anything. Ruskin, for example, studied geology, because if you're going to talk about how people should paint landscapes and what those landscapes look like, you need to understand what landscapes really do look like, which means understanding their formation. He understood that art of the kind he wanted could only be produced by certain types of people, and so society had to be organised in a way to produce such people. Some types of societal organisation lead to some kinds of thinking and creation, and to properly, honestly, understand one branch of human thought means at least to attempt to understand all of them. Opinions about art have moral consequences, and morality has political and economic consequences. The inevitable endpoint of any theory of art is, ultimately, a theory of society.

And Ruskin had a theory of society, and social organisation. Ruskin's views are too complex to summarise here, but they were a kind of anarcho-primitivist collectivism. He believed that wealth was evil, and that the classical liberal economics of people like Mill was fundamentally anti-human, that the division of labour alienated people from their work. In Ruskin's ideal world, people would gather in communities no bigger than villages, and work as craftspeople, working with nature rather than trying to bend nature to their will. They would be collectives, with none richer or poorer than any other, and working the land without modern technology.

in the first half of the twentieth century, in particular, Ruskin's influence was *everywhere*. His writings on art inspired the Impressionist movement, but his political and economic ideas were the most influential, right across the political spectrum. Ruskin's ideas were closest to Christian socialism, and he did indeed inspire many socialist parties -- most of the founders of Britain's Labour Party were admirers of Ruskin and influenced by his ideas, particularly his opposition to the free market. But he inspired many other people -- Gandhi talked about the profound influence that Ruskin had on him, saying in his autobiography that he got three lessons from Ruskin's Unto This Last:


1) the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2) a lawyer's work has the same value as the barber's in as much as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.

3) a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it clear as daylight for me that the second and third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice"

Gandhi translated and paraphrased Unto this Last into Gujurati and called the resulting book Sarvodaya (meaning "uplifting all" or "the welfare of all") which he later took as the name of his own polit








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Episode 167: “The Weight” by The Band

Episode 167: “The Weight” by The Band

Andrew Hickey