"I picked up my bag, I went lookin' for a place to hide/ When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side"
These lines suggest temptation. Carmen, one of opera's most unforgettable characters, is synonymous with seduction and its disastrous consequences.Deep Thought
In Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen, Carmen is a beautiful gypsy cigarette girl who seduces Don Jose. Completely undone by Carmen's charms, the formerly noble and duty-minded Don Jose neglects his duty, draws his sword on a superior officer, deserts his unit, and, of course, eventually kills Carmen.
In other words, Carmen is temptation, a fitting companion for the Devil, and a dangerous obstacle for the traveler trying to complete the errand he has undertaken for Miss Fanny.
Robbie Robertson is clearly aware of all the meaning attached to the name Carmen. But Levon Helm wrote that all of the song's characters were drawn from real-life friends and acquaintances.
The line, therefore, offers yet another example of The Band's blending of the mythic and the real.
"Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say/ It's just ol' Luke, and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day"
This line might refer to the African American spiritual, Go Down Moses. Or it might refer to William Faulkner's novel Go Down, Moses. Or it might refer to another of the real-life characters drawn from Band members' pasts.Deep Thought
This line offers yet another of these teasing references to cultural icons, yet, at least according to Levon Helm, it's actually referring to real people from The Band's past. Luke was Jimmy Ray Luke Paulman, mocked by his friends for being incredibly slow and therefore "waitin' on the judgment day." Miss Moses, according to some, was another of the Arkansas characters who was imported to add living texture to the song.
But, once again, it's hard to believe that Robertson was unaware of the cultural button he would push with the line (after all, the man likes surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel).
Robertson did say that he liked Faulkner. For a band with powerful Southern roots, this greatest of all Southern writers could easily have been required reading, so it's very possible that he read Faulkner's novel Go Down Moses. But it's easier to draw parallels with the Bible-based black spiritual, Go Down Moses. In the song, Moses, like the narrator of "The Weight," is asked to deliver a message:
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
So, sort of like "give my regards to everyone" punctuated by a bunch of frogs, flies, and locusts.
"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.'"
The line, frequently misquoted, most likely refers to a bed, commonly called a rack in the military.Deep Thought
This is one of the most frequently misquoted lines in the song. Many lyrics websites, for example, suggest that Crazy Chester offers to fix the traveler's "rags" in return for feeding his dog.
Even among those who hear "rack" instead of "rags" there is disagreement over meaning. One of the more common suggestions is that the line has some sort of drug connotation, as in, "fix your rack" would mean "ease your pain by getting you a fix."
The more likely meaning is far simpler. Rack is a common military term for a bunk or bed. And a bed is what the narrator enters Nazareth hoping to find. It's true that this was the 1960s, but people did have to sleep every now and then.
"Catch a cannon ball now, 'take me down the line/ My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time"
The line might refer to a train, or even to the legendary song "The Wabash Cannonball." But some have suggested that it may actually reference a popular 1960s Canadian television show called Cannonball, which was about two truckers.Deep Thought
"The Wabash Cannonball" is a nineteenth-century American folksong about a fictional train, first recorded by the Carter Family in 1929. Almost everything points toward this line being a reference to the tired and now more heavily burdened ("my bag is sinking low") narrator returning by train to Miss Fanny.
But some have suggested that "cannonball" may be a more specifically Canadian reference. During the 1960s, the Canadian band members might have watched the popular Canadian television show Cannonball, in which Mike and Jerry kept an eye out for smokies while puttin' the hammer down across Canada's highways.
Sure, it's kind of a stretch. But it seems reasonable that since this song comes from a band full of Canadians, there might be just one Canadian cultural reference in it.