“We were rebelling against the rebellion…we 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 Buñuel 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.