Six Degrees of The Band’s Music From Big Pink

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 05.16.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Music From Big Pink


"We were rebelling against the rebellionwe were rebels with an absolute cause. It was an instinct to separate ourselves from the pack," Band guitarist Robbie Robertson told writer Rob Bowman, summarizing the group's against-the-grain nature with the '60s counter-culture. And separate they did. After being greeted with boos on tour with Bob Dylan in 1965 and '66, they holed up in the tiny upstate town of Woodstock with Dylan and set about re-imagining musical history. What resulted was Music From Big Pink, a rebellion delivered at a whisper when the era called for howls. Psychedelia was nowhere to be had amid the rustic sound of the album, but these 12 songs abounded with surreal images: a pointing golden calf, a wheel on fire, Carmen and the Devil walking side by side. Robertson cites the images of filmmaker Luis Buuel and the guitar stylings of "Pops" Staples and Curtis Mayfield as touchstones. The music itself hearkened back to discarded genres: Dixieland jazz, mountain music, Bach fugues, country-and-western, vaudeville. And the voices that delivered these songs were singular: there's the cracked yelp of bassist Rick Danko, the yearning falsetto of pianist Richard Manuel, the Arkansian drawl of Levon Helm, all converging into harmony that is at once earthy and transcendent (and expertly captured by producer John Simon). In an era trending towards 10-minute blues-based freakouts, The Band crafted reverential, nuanced covers of Lefty Frizzell, Charlie Poole, and Big Bill Broonzy (the latter two as bonus tracks). And the album art played up "roots," from pictures of Big Pink itself to The Band posed as 18th-century miners to a four-generation portrait of the group with their "next of kin." Robertson summed up their intent as so: "This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology." You can hear it as well.

The Backing Band

Bobby Charles [w/ Bonus Tracks]

Bobby Charles

"Bobby made this record lying flat on his back, with his eyes closed and his dog licking his feet," begins Rolling Stone's review of this s/t 1972 album from New Orleans singer/songwriter Bobby Charles Guidry. Famous for cutting the New Orleans classic "See You Later Alligator," Charles had faded from the music industry. But as Moondog Matinee made clear, the Band were heavily influenced by such rollicking New Orleans music, and were particularly taken with Charles, who wound up in upstate New York with four-fifths of the group chipping in (with Rick Danko and John Simon producing) on his first full-length. If the album sounds as "prone" as the above-quote suggests, more power to it. Who better than Charles to deliver a paean to loafers and drifters on the slinking groove of "Street People"? Or hear how sweetly he admires the sight of a butterfly on the gentle "I Must Be in A Good Place Now." As easy and breezy as an afternoon out fishing, an evening swinging on a porch, or an early morning rolling in your sweet baby's arms, the album radiates good cheer and good times.

The British Band

Liege And Lief

Fairport Convention

It's no surprise that British folk-rock troupe Fairport Convention were taken with Bob Dylan. Their previous album, Unhalfbricking, feature no less than three exquisite Dylan covers, but as producer Joe Boyd writes in the liner notes to Fairport Convention's most fully-realized effort, Leige & Leif: "The Band hit them hard. They couldn't stop playing [Music From Big Pink]. They loved it but they were shocked. It was so deeply Americanthat Fairport felt that the goalposts may have been moved too far away." How they responded was by looking out their own window and embracing the folk that emanated from the British Isles. Jigs, reels, fiddle tunes, and Child Ballads crept into their electrified sound, sounding at once ancient and modern. Carried by the serpentine leads of guitar hero Richard Thompson and the arresting power of Sandy Denny's vocals, this remains a pinnacle of the British folk-rock era.

Lonesome Bobbie

Ode To Billie Joe

Bobbie Gentry

In Greil Marcus's book The Old, Weird America, which plumbs the depths of The Basement Tapes, he invokes country music chanteuse Bobbie Gentry, who had a hit the summer Dylan and the Band were holed up in Big Pink with the haunting "Ode to Billie Joe." Greil writes that Gentry's "singer is like the woman who walks the hills in "Long Black Veil" and parallels "Billie Joe" with "Clothesline Saga," in that both songs "speak the language of nothing, nowhere, never was never mind." Perhaps so, but Gentry had an eye for detail kin to southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. She wove into her songs references like her birthplace of Chickasaw County, Tallahatchie Bridge, and noted details like drinking down buttermilk and passing black-eyed peas, all while crafting singular characters like Niki Hoeky and of course, the star-crossed Billie Joe MacAllister.

Music From the Chicken Shack

Link Wray

Link Wray

A one-lunged Korean War veteran that was part Shawnee, reared by tent revival preachers, Link Wray will forever be known as a garage and rockabilly demigod, if only for the glowering riff of his 1958 hit "Rumble" that inspired everyone from Jimmy Page to Pete Townshend to grab a guitar. But by the end of the '60s, Wray was lost in the wave of that era's rock. But as The Band and the Stones made inroads with American roots music, Wray decided that he could embrace his heritage and do these Canadians and Brits one better. He even set up a recording studio in a chicken shack on his property in Accokeek, Maryland, so as to cut this rugged comeback album. From the sacrosanct backwoods gospel of "Fire and Brimstone" to the scuff-boot boogie of "Jukebox Mama," with detours into searing rawhide blues, fans of The Band and '68 era Stones need this.

Back to the Land

Campfire Songs

The Animal Collective

In the cold autumn of 2002, three friends from school (all presently living in New York City) convened on a porch in rural Maryland to record Campfire Songs. They had played shows in New York under pseudonyms and would soon decide on the band name of Animal Collective, and within a few years would soar from their obscure status to become vanguard indie-rock visionaries of the 21st century. But before all that occurred, Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Deakin sat in a circle deep in the woods and recorded this album in one take, letting their vocals slowly harmonize amid ellipses of strummed acoustic guitars and the sounds of insects in the woods. Looking back on it, Panda Bear recalled the original intent was to do "something really warm and invitingsongs that you can sing with a bunch of people and everybody gets connected and feels good and safe." In songs like "Queen of My Pictures" and "Doggy" one can hear a next generation of musical seeds being scattered and quietly taking root.