April 20th, 2012
03:32 PM ET
The late Levon Helm, who died Thursday, had a wonderfully distinctive voice, but his drawling delivery didn’t always make it easy to discern the words of The Band’s songs – which only added to the music’s charm.
Nevertheless, with Helm’s passing, an old debate has once again flared up: In “The Weight,” is the lyric “Take a load off, Annie” or “Take a load off, Fanny”? In our obituary of Helm, we went with “Annie,” but the CNN newsroom has divided into factions passionately defending one or the other.
The Internet, the world’s biggest game of Telephone, is little help. Some lyrics sites say the former; others go with the latter. The unofficial Band site goes with “Fanny," and has a terrifically detailed list of reasons why - including an explanation featuring an old girlfriend and her pregnancy (or was it venereal disease?).
Then there’s the performance itself. The studio cut on “Music from Big Pink” has Helm sliding from “off” into the name, which means it could go whichever way your ears are bending. (And one version on YouTube tries to have it both ways.)
In the final verse, Helm does appear to say, “To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one” - but is that the same person referenced in the chorus? And what about “Miss Anna Lee,” who pops up elsewhere in the song?
The live version from “The Last Waltz” doesn’t settle the matter.
Aretha Franklin’s 1969 version, with the great Duane Allman on guitar, seems to lean toward “Annie." On the other hand, the recent video of Mavis Staples singing with Wilco and Nick Lowe has Mavis enunciating “Fanny” pretty clearly.
A publicist for Capitol Records, The Band’s label, says that it’s “Fanny,” offering as evidence an interview she uncovered with songwriter Robbie Robertson. This dovetails with the explanation in Helm’s memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which explains the genesis of the song and adds, “There were also ‘Carmen and the Devil,’ ‘Miss Moses’ and ‘Fanny,’ a name that just seemed to fit the picture.”
On the other hand, CNN’s Denise Quan spoke to Maud (Mrs. Garth) Hudson, and Mrs. Hudson says it’s “Annie.” (She also told Denise that she thinks it’s funny we’re having such a big debate about it.)
CNN also reached out to songwriter Robbie Robertson. According to his manager, the name is … “Fanny.” So that settles it – right?
Regardless of the name in the chorus, there’s no question “The Weight” remains a resonant song - this almost biblical tale of a weary man looking for rest and finding himself tangled up with a town full of colorful characters. Indeed, it’s perhaps the most covered in The Band’s repertoire, with versions by artists ranging from Joe Cocker to Weezer to Panic! At the Disco.
At such times, there’s only one solution: Listen to the music. Again.
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