The Band Music From Big Pink

10 Best Songs by The Band

The Band started their career backing blues belter Ronnie Hawkins, known as The Hawks. They then backed Bob Dylan on his controversial 1966 tour. Recording The Basement Tapes with Dylan at Woodstock, The Band started writing their own material. Their 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink was extremely influential – other acts like The Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash went back to basics in the wake of The Band’s success.

All five members of The Band were excellent musicians – does any rock band have a tighter and funkier rhythm section than drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko? Robbie Robertson was the main songwriter and it’s notable how restrained his guitar is on the Band’s albums, leaving room in the arrangements for Garth Hudson’s array of keyboards and Richard Manuel’s piano. The Band’s music often reaches into old-timey styles, with echoes of country, western, ragtime, and blues, all presented with authenticity and verve.

Much of The Band’s best-loved material is concentrated on their first two records – the group largely fractured due to disputes over songwriting royalties. That’s reflected on this list, which is heavy on their 1960s material. There wasn’t room for classics like ‘It Makes No Difference’, ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘Jawbone’, or the ace cover of ‘Long Black Veil’.

10 Best Songs by The Band

The Band Music From Big Pink

#10 To Kingdom Come

from Music From Big Pink, 1968
Robbie Robertson isn’t noted as a vocalist – Helm pointed out that the guitarists microphone was turned off during the concert film The Last Waltz. He sings a rare lead vocal on ‘To Kingdom Come’ – his shaky voice is shored up by the band’s stronger singers. It’s a more conventional rock song than most of The Band’s catalogue – there’s even a guitar solo.


#9 Ophelia

from Northern Lights – Southern Cross, 1975
‘Ophelia’ is a Dixieland-flavoured romp. I always assumed that Allen Toussaint, who worked with the band on other projects, arranged the horns, but they were all played and arranged by Garth Hudson. There’s a rollicking Helm vocal and a stinging Robertson solo on this track, which brims with musicality.


#8 Acadian Driftwood

from Northern Lights – Southern Cross, 1975
The Band are so associated with American folklore and a traditional Americana sound that it’s easy to forget that most of its members are Canadian. ‘Acadian Driftwood’ is one Band song that reflects this heritage, retelling the deportation of French settlers from Nova Scotia in the 18th century. Robertson was influenced by the Longfellow poem Evangeline, and ‘Acadian Driftwood’ is a historic epic that sits proudly alongside the better known ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Byron Berline guests on fiddle, while Manuel, Danko, and Helm share lead vocals.


#7 Whispering Pines

from The Band, 1969
Richard Manuel only wrote a handful of songs for The Band before his songwriting muse dried up, My favourite from his pen is this eerie tune from The Band, filled with an aching longing. Manuel wrote the tune on a piano with a single out-of-tune key – when he recorded the finished version he tuned the studio piano to match it. Manuel wrote the music but couldn’t come up with lyrics. Robertson helped out, with words that mirrored Manuel’s plaintiveness and sensitivity. The result is one of the most haunting pieces of the rock music era.


#6 The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

from The Band, 1969
Robertson accompanied Helm to visit his parents in Arkansas. Helm’s father told Robertson – “‘Don’t worry, Robin – the South is going to rise again.” This inspired lyrics for a tune that Robertson had written months earlier on the piano. ‘Dixie’ recalls the distress felt by a Southerner during the dying stages of the American Civil War. Helm gave Robertson some pointers – ‘Don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in the lyrics – that won’t go down too well.’ Like some of The Band’s other material, it sits outside rock and roll – it could have been written in 1869 rather than 1969.


#5 Chest Fever

from Music From Big Pink, 1968
The music for ‘Chest Fever’ was written by Robertson, but its most memorable facet is Hudson’s organ playing. He based his intro on Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’, extending it for live performances. In comparison to the classically derived music, Manuel’s improvised lyrics are lightweight, but it’s hard to know what else would work in the setting. There’s also a bizarre bridge where the rhythm stops, replaced by what sounds like a drunken Salvation Army band.


#4 The Weight

from Music From Big Pink, 1968
“I pulled into Nazareth/Feeling ’bout a half past dead” is one of the great opening lines in rock music, an iconic opening for The Band’s first single. It’s a great introduction for the three vocalists – their voices are memorably layered for the song’s main hook, followed by Danko’s iconic descending bassline. The lyrics of ‘The Weight’ are filled with memorable people – residents of the American South and characters from Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel films.


#3 Up On Cripple Creek

from The Band, 1969
Another great opening line in this tune – “When I get off of this mountain/You know where I want to go/Straight down the Mississippi River/To the Gulf of Mexico”. ‘Cripple Creek’ is another Band song that spotlights the musical contributions of Hudson – his keyboard parts are sublime. There’s funky clavinet on the verses and interludes, and soulful Lowrey Organ in the chorus. The rhythm section is tight and funky, while Helm’s downhome vocal is perfect for the song.


The Band 1969 Album

#2 King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

from The Band, 1969
As a reaction against the era of guitar heroes – Hendrix and Clapton – accomplished guitarist Robbie Robertson barely played a solo on the first two Band albums. A notable exception is the closing bars of the closing track on 1969’s The Band, where Robertson finally lets loose for a short but memorable solo. ‘King Harvest’ tells the story of a struggling farmer, reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.


#1 Rag Mama Rag

from The Band, 1969
The Band had an alternate configuration that they could slip into for old-timey music – Robertson would stay on guitar, but Helm would switch to mandolin, Danko to fiddle, Hudson to ragtime piano, and Manuel drummed. That lineup is employed on ‘Rag Mama Rag’, a song that Dr. John described as a “cross between Memphis and New Orleans”. It’s lighthearted fare compared to serious tunes like ‘King Harvest’ and ‘Acadian Driftwood’ but it’s charming and irresistible.


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Aphoristical

Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.

Aphoristic Album Reviews features many Reviews and Blog Posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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73 Comments

  1. Great list, I might have added “The Shape I’m In” but that’s me. The Band was one of those bands who should have had more recognition then they did. You’re right, they were all great musicians.

    • I barely hear them on the radio, but lots of people seem to know their back-catalogue anyway. Helps that they have a very famous concert movie.

  2. As a born and bred Canadian, growing up with so many great bands, there are only three that tower above the rest and will stand the test of time (love them or not!)

    This list has to have “the weight” and “Dixie” “Ophelia” “cripple creek”, which you do. The other 6 you can debate. I like the idea of “the shape I’m in” from 80s metal man.

      • The Hip and Rush. You can easily add the Arcade Fire (relative newcomers) and “The Guess Who” to make it five. The longer you make the list, though, the more it’s open to (legitimate) interpretation/ altering. I just don’t think bands like “Steppenwolf”, “Crazy Horse” or “BTO” have the quantity of material to be in the top 5.

        • I got really oddball taste in Canadian bands because my favorite ones in order are BTO, The Guess Who, Our Lady Peace and maybe, but not necessarily, The Band or Rush. Those first three have more songs that I can get excited about than the latter. I know: a real minority opinion. Heh heh. But they’re more enjoyable, that’s for sure.

          • Ah, I don’t think this is in any way an oddball list. I think the main pushback you would get is not having the Tragically Hip in the top 3, which most (but obviously not everyone) would. You don’t have any of the big 3 Indy bands (Arcade Fire, Metric, New Pornographers) but maybe that’s not your thing. People either love or hate Rush, no in-between. The Winnipeg bands (BTO and the Guess Who) are loved. OLP are fondly remembered even though you don’t hear them played so much any more, for some reason.

          • I like Rush, but just certain select songs. Same thing with arcade fire and new pornographers. When I was a teenager I can remember there used to be a lot more Canadian indie bands than there are now, it seems like. Besides tragically hip I remember all these other Canadian indie bands from college radio that were kind of like semi popular. Like Rheostatics and The Pursuit of Happiness and all these other ones. Cowboy Junkies. 54 40 or something like that. I think they were the ones that did I’m An Adult Now, remember that one? ha ha. Also Bare Naked Ladies were really popular at the time. There was more than there are now. Which is strange.

          • New Pornographers would rank pretty high on my list of favourite Canadian bands, as would Sloan and Stars.

          • I think most people outside of Canada would know your top 5/6 above plus “Barenaked Ladies”, but probably not “the Rheostatics” “Pursuit of Hapiness” “54/40” etc. Regarding your point about there being less quality now, I think the issue is the fragmentation of music delivery today. In the past twenty years there have been amazing bands such as “the Weakerthans”, “Sloan” “Hey Rosetta” and “Wintersleep”. Not as many people got exposed to them, unfortunately

          • There are a lot of questionable lists out there, but google Bob Mersereau’s list of the top 100 albums. He canvassed people from all sides of the music business. It’s pretty legit – (no Nickelback or Sum 41 etc). The Band, Neil Young, and Joni each occupy 2 of the top 10 all- time spots.

          • As far as mersereau’s (still definitive) list, he did not choose any of the albums, he only invented the methodology and chose 600 participants. You will see that “The Pursuit of Happiness” actually make an appearance and “the Rheostatics” and “Sloan” and have two albums each.

            Neil Young is on like 7 times. Joni Mitchell 5.The tragically Hip 4. The Band, Rush, The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and Sarah Maclachlan 3 times each. You can find the full list on Wikipedia.

          • Yeah I saw the list. Not surprised about a lot of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. I think only one BTO though. I like Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Sainte Marie too, but the albums I like weren’t there. There’s nothing really too surprising there. I thought I would see more off-the-wall stuff . You know what? Someone should make a list of greatest Canadian one-hit wonders cuz Canada is really good at that. It could have Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade, The Kings, Spoons. One time I listened to a playlist of Canadian one-hit wonders and it had all these great songs i like. Echo Beach and Switching to Glide and stuff.

          • Destroyer have been around since the mid-1990s but got more attention in the last decade. Dan Bejar has also been the second banana in The New Pornographers, and he sings sardonically over yacht rock backing.

          • that’s cool. When I hear the term Yacht Rock I don’t think something negative like you’re supposed to, I think of stuff like Steely Dan and other 70s studio rock that always gets labeled Yacht Rock . When something is called Yacht Rock there’s about a 50/50 chance it’s something I like. ha ha

          • Yacht rock is pretty cool now, I believe. Music has swung back to being bright and glossy too.

          • Ok well I’ll start your list Canadian of one-ish wonders

            1. Men without hats (talent)
            2. Corey Hart
            3. Martha MM (faraway in time..)
            4. Toronto
            5. The spoons
            6. glass Tiger
            7. Rough Trade
            8. Default

          • Some of these I don’t know at all, like Toronto and Glass Tiger and Default. But the rest of them would be on my list. Then there’s some that actually had more than one hit but I still think of them as one hit wonders because they only had one that I liked. I would start the list like this:

            1. This Beat Goes On /Switching to Glide – The Kings
            2. Echo Beach – Martha and the Muffins
            3. Lay It on the Line – Triumph
            4. Sunglasses at Night – Corey Hart
            5. All Touch – Rough Trade
            6. Nova Heart – Spoons
            7. Turn Me Loose – Loverboy
            8. Safety Dance – Men Without Hats
            9. People Gotta Move – Gino Vanelli

            Bodies in Collision by Rough Trade could possibly have been a hit too but I don’t know for sure. But I love that one too.

          • I got more Canadian one hits; I love em all, believe it or not.

            Len – Steal My Sunshine
            Jayne Child – Don’t Wanna Fall in Love
            Bruce Cockburn -Wondering Where the Lions Are
            Bran Van 3000 – Drinking in L.A.
            Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
            Gale Garnett – We’ll Sing in the Sunshine
            Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun
            The Poppy Family – That’s Where I Went Wrong

          • KingClover – Here you go. Default “Wasting my Time” – for your Canada one hit wonders. You are welcome!

            https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UAocvKHUidg

            Apologies if the link doesn’t work. This was a billboard hit in the days of Creed (not from Canada!) and Nickel-back (from Canada).

            It’s so bad, that it’s good. I like it on a certain level.

          • Bruce C is not really a one hit wonder. He’s Actually a legit Canadian artist. The U2 line “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight” is borrowed (and appropriately credited on Rattle and Hum) to cockburn.

            Bran van are loved. But they are in essence a two hit wonder. Download “Everywhere “. It’s amazing.

          • By one hit wonder I meant only one hit in THE U.S. I know a shitload of Canadian artists who had multiple hits in Canada, but I’m not counting those. Or Canadians who had lots of hits in the states.

          • I think re the top 100 albums list: there’s a long tradition of country and western hiding in Canadian rock and this list leans heavily in that direction. Neil Young, Joni, the Band, Blue Rodeo.

            There’s KD Lang, Cowboy Junkies, and Shania Twain but no Avril Levine or Tegan and Sara – for example.

            The Tragically Hip do have some CW cred too. You can hear it clearly in some of their biggest songs “New Orleans is Sinking”, “Long Time Running” and “Bobcageon”.

            “New rock” gets almost shut out. One arcade Fire and one Broken Social Scene. No new pornographers or metric or stars.

          • It always happens that modern music has become more and more fragmented. It’s possible not many voters are familiar with 21st century stuff.

  3. Here’s my list. I might borrow your idea on this one, point back to yours. This may be enough to drag CB out of retirement.

    10. Acadian Driftwood
    9. Ophelia
    8. Stage Fright
    7. Chest Fever
    6. The Shape I’m in
    5. It Makes No Difference
    4. Up On Cripple Creek
    3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
    2. Rag Mama Rag
    1. The Weight

    • Feel free to make your own list for your blog. Our lists are pretty ballpark similar really. I’ve never loved the Stage Fright singles for some reason – they seem unambitious after the variety of material on offer on The Band.

        • Looks like Stage Fright and Time to Kill were the singles – The Shape I’m In was a b-side that got some radio play too.

          • I know the studio heads would disagree but I always hated the idea of pulling singles out of album-oriented rock band’s albums. Especially one like The Band. They’re not a singles band or teen idols. Jimmy Page always refused to allow singles to be released. And yet if you look at their discography it shows a bunch. Wha??

          • That’s unusual that an artist wouldn’t want to release singles from an album because hit singles are free advertising for the album. Albums with hit singles are more successful, and if your album is successful you’re more likely to be able to continue making more albums, which is what the artists want. I wonder if Jimmy Page was just overruled by everybody else and it just wasn’t his decision to make. All of their albums had at least two singles and some three.

          • As the article below notes, it was less that they were anti-single, more that they were pro-album. A glance at their discography reveals that the earlier ones – including “”Stairway” – were promotional singles, not officially released ones. Given Zep’s anti-single stance I’m surprised any were released that way. The later songs that were apparently singles were really – at least here in the US – popular album cuts on FM radio. Everybody who I knew that owned Zep owned the albums and if there were singles released we weren’t aware of them. We wanted the whole experience. Anyway, the article:
            https://www.grunge.com/261295/why-led-zeppelin-hated-releasing-singles/

          • That is so interesting. It’s true that It was usually their shortest songs that were the singles. Like on lV, Black Dog and Rock and Roll were the singles and on Houses they were D’yer Mak’er and Over the Hills. I know that at least three of those were actually Billboard top 40 hits too. And I think the two from In Through the Out Door also were. I bet they were glad that they didn’t have to edit those ones and cut them down. Lol

          • I’ve known about Zep’s no-singles stance forever. Which is why I was surprised to find they had any at all. I suppose that as artists that was their preference. But as guys who enjoyed a bit of beer money, I suppose they weren’t too upset when the singles money started to flow.

  4. I’m not sure I have 10 by them that I love, but at least a bunch anyway. And they’re pretty much all the most famous ones. Obviously, The Weight and Night They Drove Old Dixie Down are super-great. And btw, the version by Joan Baez I really like too. Also The Shape I’m In, Life is a Carnival, Don’t Do It. There’s probably more if I really thought about it. That oldies album they did has The Great Pretender that I liked, and also the Elvis song Mystery Train too. And I think something else.

    • Yeah, I think my list is pretty conventional really – their prime catalogue is relatively small, and it’s hard to go past the heavy hitters like The Weight and Dixie.

  5. You mention the unfortunate rift – a fight over money. This directly informed The Tragically Hip’s very conscious decision early on to always share the song credits evenly five ways- No matter what. This kept them together until the end.

    Robbie claims that he and Levon made peace on LHs deathbed. But nobody else was there! So it’s unclear what happened.

    • Long Black Veil is a great song. The original is good. Johnny Cash’s version is amazing. However, The Band is one example of a cover song being much better than the original. It’s my number one song by The Band.

      I would probably drop Rag Mama Rag way down, raise Long Black Veil up to the top.

      • I really like Long Black Veil – it’s sometimes hard to opt for a cover over a band’s own material, but in this case it would be justified.

    • Yeah, I think later bands learned from that – REM, Radiohead, and U2 all split the writing credits and have been able to get on pretty well for long careers. Queen switched to doing it late career too.

  6. What a fine collection of songs. My list would probably include “The shape I’m in” and would definitely feature “It makes no difference” in the top half, most likely subbing out “Cripple Creek”.

    Thanks for the reminder of The Band’s deep well of talent.

  7. Great list…with The Band you could almost shake some songs up and see where they land. I agree with your top ten…how could I not? The one I could not leave out would be I Shall Be Released. All your choices are great.

    Mine would be

    1. The Weight
    2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (one of the best melodies ever)
    3. I Shall Be Released
    4. Stage Fright
    5. The Shape I’m In
    6. Cripple Creek
    7. Rag Mama Rag
    8. King Harvest
    9. Ophelia
    10. Life is a Carnival

    Bonus would be Don’t Do It and Long Black Veil

    • Life Is A Carnival is a good one that I probably should have added to the consolation list. I like Don’t Do It too.

  8. I would do it like this.

    1. The Weight
    2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (one of the best melodies ever)
    3. Stage Fright
    4. The Shape I’m In
    5. The Great Pretender
    6. Life Is a Carnival
    7. Don’t Do It
    8. Mystery Train
    9. Up On Cripple Creek
    10.Theme from The Third Man

    You know what? All my life I thought that the song Uncle John’s Band was by The Band, but then one day I found out it was really the Grateful Dead. I have no idea why I thought that. Maybe I just thought it sounded like a song that The Band would do, or maybe just because it has the word Band in the title. LMAO!!!

    • Uncle John’s Band does sound a lot like The Band – the Grateful Dead kind of moved into CSN/Band mode for those albums at the turn of the 1970s. Although I barely know their other stuff apart from American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead – always so much music and so little time…

  9. An embarrassment of riches here, and the one outstanding absentee from your list in my opinion is It Makes No Difference, probably the pinnacle of Rick Danko’s career. For what it’s worth, here’s a possible list:
    1. Acadian Driftwood
    2. It Makes No Difference
    3. Rag Mama Rag
    4. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
    5. Baby Don’t Do It (a live version, not sure where and when, but without brass, i.e. not from The Last Waltz)
    6. Tears of Rage (Big Pink version)
    7. Bessie Smith
    8 Katie’s Been Gone
    9. All la glory
    10. Evangeline

    but really, it’s like saying you have a favourite child. I’m just grateful they produced so much incredible stuff.

    • Evangeline is a good call – it made my top ten Emmylou tracks. She made a studio version of it later, but The Band only have it on The Last Waltz. You’re obviously a big fan with those deep cuts and outtakes in there.

    • I might have ranked Acadian Driftwood higher in hindsight – I made the original list a few years ago. Seems a bit undervalued – like most classic rock fans know Dixie, but Acadian Driftwood is a lot more obscure.

  10. Great list. I like all of your picks. “Chest Fever” sounds like the opening of a Deep Purple song. I don’t recall having heard that before – so cool!

    I have to admit while I’ve really come to enjoy The Band (for the longest time, I had only known “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), I’ve yet to explore them in greater detail. As such, coming up with a fully informed list would be tricky.

    Among songs that didn’t make your list, my picks would probably include “I Shall Be Released” and “The Shape I’m In”.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard them on the radio – maybe The Weight occasionally. Those first two albums, along with Northern Lights-Southern Cross, are just packed with classics.

      • As far as radio- You would hear “the weight” and “Dixie” most likely on classic rock or dedicated 70’s stations now. That’s about it. Also there was a very popular cover of Dixie by Dolly Parton (I think?) that you might hear on Country and Western stations occasionally.

        • Yep, for years all I ever knew by The Band was those two songs. Because they played them on classic rock radio all the time. The cover of Dixie was by Joan Baez and it was a humongous hit. And so The Band also put it out it as a single after that, even though it first came out in 69.

          • Two relatively unknown but cool covers are by “Carolina Story” and also also from “The Black Crowes” at the Filmore. You can find them both on YouTube

          • I liked the music on both of those. Especially the bluegrassy one. I didn’t like the singing on either one though. They’re trying too hard. I wish more singers would just fucking relax a little bit, ya know what I mean? Instead of trying to impress everybody all the time.

  11. I guess this Band still has some life. I dropped a comment over at Music Enthusiast. To lazy to repeat but so many good songs to like. Solid list from you (and others). I was talking music with a friend and he mentioned ‘Hot Burrito #1’ being very similar to ‘Makes No Difference’ in it’s heartfelt beautiful vocals. Couldn’t agree more. I mention this because I think I recall you being a Gram fan.

    • Nice to have you drop in! Your friend is right that Hot Burrito #1 and Makes No Difference are pretty similar – both kind of lovelorn country ballads. Danko’s vocal is great on Makes No Difference.

  12. All good! It’s a fun game.

    Then include “Saga”, “Chiliwack”, “Honeymoon Sweet” “Suzanne Vega” – there’s no shortage of them!

    • I’ll have to check those out. I recognize all the names But I never heard any of their stuff, except Suzanne Vega. Teenage Head is one of my all-time favorite Canadian bands but I can’t put them cuz they never had a hit in the U.S. that I know of.

      • For the ultimate Canada one hit wonder. – Jerry Doucette “Mama Let him Play” just passed away.

        There’s a big obit in the Globe And Mail today. The article features/ quotes Dave Bindini from the Rheostatics and others.

        • Never heard of him before but Wiki says that song made the Billboard top 100 in the States and also the album. I listened to it and I think he sings like Randy Bachman. It even sounds like a song BTO would do. And in the video it showed a picture of the 45 single, and it had that label from Mushroom Records which I recognized from somewhere, And then I remembered that its the same label that Heart’s first album was on. With that picture of the big red mushroom. lol

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