The Band: ‘Music from Big Pink’ is American music

While America has been the source of countless new and remarkable musical genres over the past 40-odd years, including hip-hop and techno, it is hard to classify any of this output as American music.  It’s hard to classify American music as a genre at all. In an effort to save space and time, I’m going to opt not to take this study all the way back to the fields and battles of our country’s turbulent beginnings. See, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to sum up American music within the confines of one turbulent summer: the summer of 1967, and one band — The Band. Before the summer of ’67, The Band functioned solely as a back-up group, first for Ronnie Hawkins and later, in ‘66, for Bob Dylan.   Even before they had begun writing their own songs, these five Canadians and one Arkansan were doing a great deal to characterize America and its music.  Left to their own devices, in a house dubbed “Big Pink,” located in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, they defined American music. “We carried you in our arms/On Independence Day/And now you’d throw us all aside/And put us on our way.” These are the first words sung on “Music From Big Pink,” The Band’s debut album.   The song, co-written by Bob Dylan during the sessions for what later became known as “The Basement Tapes,” is called “Tears of Rage.”   While those lines alone paint an assuredly American portrait, it does not end there. The singer, Richard Manuel, mourns the loss of a country, one that he has sacrificed his life for as if it were his own child.   Displaced and dejected, Manuel’s vocal performance is impossible to hear without simultaneously feeling. And that’s only the beginning. From those first words, straight through to the last, “Music From Big Pink” depicts a mythic yet tangible country wise beyond its years.   The album seems to effortlessly build a bridge to the past and run back and forth across it. There are love stories, ghost stories, war stories and every other kind of American tale you’ve ever heard. Not to mention the music, which — by the way — is American. It’s folk music. It’s rock n’ roll. It’s the blues. It’s gospel and old spirituals.   The combination of such diverse influences gives the album a timeless feel while the influence it has had since its release nearly 45 years ago has made it truly timeless. To be clear, I’m not saying that American music can only be found on a single LP. What I‘m saying is something more like this: There’s American music, and then there’s post-“Music From Big Pink” music.   They revolutionized the genre. They brought all the pieces together, and they brought their creation to the forefront of popular music. They made history come alive and they made history. Do yourself a favor — listen to The Band’s “Music From Big Pink.”