Friday, April 20, 2012

He shall lead Levon

"You cannot imagine the impact of this song when it came out. (Fanny is a woman's name in the US.) The people he "woke up." God speed, brother. Thank you forever."

-Ken's Wife Lisi on Levon Helm and The Weight:

Oh I so love the Weight and this song and the lyrics.

Rag Mama Rag -- by Robbie Robertson

"Rag Mama Rag" is a man's comic story about a woman whose coyness in the face of blatant attempts at seduction takes the form of a habitual tendency to "rag" (one meaning is to tease; another is to play this type of music) rather than cooperate. It is replete with verbal allusions to the country setting and working class milieu of the story. For example, the hyperbole involved in the joke about "letting the railroad scratch his back" is typical of the tall-tale tradition in American folk narratives. The hail stones beating on the roof (which we can easily imagine to be corrugated metal) and the 100 proof bourbon suggest the hills of Appalachia. There is also a sense of woodsy isolation, with no proximate neighbors -- "It's you and me and the telephone." The humor relies in part on good-natured deprecation, as when the singer tells her to bring her "skinny little body back home"; there is a clever use of nonsense to enhance the general feeling of confusion: "I ask about your turtle/and you ask about the weather/Well I can't jump a hurdle/and we can't get together."

Verse 1
Rag mama rag
I can't believe it's true
Rag mama rag
A-what did you do?
I crawled up to the railroad track
Let the four-nineteen scratch my back

I ask about your turtle
and you ask about the weather
Well I can't jump a hurdle
and we can't get together

We could be relaxin'
in my sleepin' bag
But all you wanna do for me mama
is a rag mama rag
There's nowhere to go
Rag mama rag
Come on resin up the bow

Rag mama rag
Where do ya roam?
Rag mama rag
bring your skinny little body back home
It's dog eat dog and cat eat mouse
You can rag mama rag all over my house

Hailstones beatin' on the roof
The bourbon is one hundred proof
It's you and me and the telephone
Our destiny is quite well known.
We don't need to sit and brag
All we gotta do is
Rag mama rag, mama rag

(V2 and V7 omitted)

The music provides a good illustration of The Band's instrumental versatility. Country style fiddle accompanies the vocalist on the melody; a modified form of ragtime piano appears which serves to create an analogue to Mama's ramblings around the shack. The latter is particularly evident at the very end of the song, when the piano plays alone. Here the ragtime rhythmic pattern emerges clearly; a 44 figure in the left hand is set against a syncopated, partially improvised figure in the right. This form is the basis for the entire song, with its "stop-and-go" feeling. The guitar and tuba or trombone assist the accompaniment figure of the left hand. Classic ragtime often uses a tight rondo-like form, but this does not appear here. Some verses flow easily into one another, while others feel somewhat disjointed. This interplay between feelings of arrival and non-arrival, anticipation and resolution appears in many of The Band's songs. By displacing accents they create a jerky, awkward feeling, in this song enhancing the confusion of the relationship described in the lyric. Other Band songs similar to "Rag..." are "Across the Great Divide" and their biggest commercial hit, "Up On Cripple Creek."

Down Home with The Band:
Country-Western Music and Rock
by David Emblidge
From Ethnomusicology, Vol. 20, No. 3. (Sep., 1976), pp. 541-552.
Fair Use. I do not own this essay nor profit from this blog. Simply celebrating a great man and a great song.

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Blogger grace said...


3:20 AM  
Blogger par.nordstrom said...

One of my my favorite Bands , more competent & better than most , especially Levon ,forevva beatin hell outa dem drums while so so saintily smilin.

´No more money . No more fancy dress...´


1:41 PM  

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