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When Music from Big Pink was released, it was notable for its seeming indifference to the musical trends of its time. A distinctive blend of folk music, country, early rock and roll, and gospel, there was not a hint of the British invasion. Nor, for all their drug use, was there nothing psychedelic about the music The Band turned out at the height of the psychedelic craze. The Band was equally resistant to certain developments during the years that followed. As many bands drifted toward Phil Spector's wall of sound, The Band's music retained its more spare, clean lines.
Clean, however, may not be the right word. Neither the instruments nor the vocals ever blended in perfect unison. In fact, what is most distinctive about The Band's music is its readily differentiated elements—the distinct instruments and voices that converge but rarely blend.
For that reason, The Band's music can be intensely personal—a missed note is easily heard, the imperfect harmonies are not muffled within some all-forgiving and absorbing mass. For that reason, the Band's music can also seem dated—more grounded in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. It slides easily behind images of wagon-rutted country roads; we can imagine Robert E. Lee's troops singing "The Weight" as they gathered outside Gettysburg. Nor is it accidental that Confederate campfires come easily to mind. After all, The Band originated in the rockabilly sounds of Arkansas. The only surprising part is how the Canadians that came to numerically dominate The Hawks/Band after 1963 managed to capture the sound so well.
From the very beginning, the song places us in Nazareth, a town with mega-historical significance. It consequently seems fitting that the devil, (Miss) Moses, and Luke should be wandering the streets of Jesus' childhood home.
But according to songwriter Robbie Robertson, this is Nazareth, Pennsylvania, not Nazareth, Israel. It's the home of Martin Guitar, not Christianity's holy family.
German guitar maker C.F. Martin immigrated to America in 1833, briefly settling in New York before setting up shop on a 55-acre spread outside Nazareth, PA. Today the company is run by C.F. Martin IV and is still based in Nazareth. Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Johnny Cash, and Joan Baez have all played Martin Guitars.
There is something legendary, then, about the Nazareth of "The Weight," but it's not the legend we thought it was at first glance. Other Band members add to this mind-tweaking misdirection by telling us that most of the characters in the song are not who we probably think they are. Luke was former Hawks' guitarist Jimmy Ray Luke Paulman, and Carmen, the Devil, and Miss Moses were well-known, if not legendary, characters from Arkansas.
So the setting throws us for a bit of a loop, but it also encourages us to think about legend and mythology. People and places acquire mythological importance over time; they don't start out that way. Before they become the snarl-toothed prophets of the Old Testament, they're just Crazy Chesters rambling the streets of an Arkansas town. Perhaps what this song is trying to say, then, is that the grand experiences that acquire mythological status are, in the beginning, just the universal trials of common people.