The group didn’t look for singles success, but sometimes he found them. The masterful quintet was in the process of refining its prototype vision for a new type of North American roots music when, on February 14, 1970, it entered the Hot 100 with one of its signature songs, “Rag Mama Rag”. . It stalled at No. 57, but Spring became their biggest UK hit, at No. 16.
After the deep and deserving admiration accorded to their debut in 1968 Music by Big PinkThe Band unveiled its equally impressive Self-titled sophomore LP in September 1969. Within weeks the band was on its way to the US Top 30 with another of its more commercial tracks, “Up On Cripple Creek”.
Capitol’s pick for the follow-up (“by popular demand,” their commercial ad said) featured an unusual instrumental setup. “Rag Mama Rag” had a local swing and a cheerfully lively feel, thanks not only to their infectious interplay and the nimble, flowing brilliance of Garth Hudson’s piano, but also bassist Rick Danko’s fiddle, which provided the lead riff. and sometimes the main instrument.
Levon Helm provided the endearing vocals and mandolin while Richard Manuel took Levon’s usual place on drums and Robbie Robertson, nominally the sole songwriter, was on low-key electric guitar. The other ingredient giving the song a nostaglic tinge was the tuba, no less, played by engineer John Simon. Musical chairs, indeed, and to their mutual admiration: Helm wrote in his autobiography, This wheel is on firethat Manuel “was playing loose, a little behind the beat, and it really swayed.”
The effect was almost that of a fun jam, even down to memorable lyrics about chilling out in a sleeping bag. Checkout reviewed the single as a “country-funk side” that “has the rhythmic enthusiasm and sonic appeal of their latest hit and the new team momentum to bolster sales even more.” World record was even more enthusiastic and unambiguous: “The best rock band in the country sounds magnificent on this side. Great!”
Barney Hoskyns liner notes for the 2000 reissue of The group noted, “Originally attempted in the poolhouse as a more conventional rock song, ‘Rag Mama Rag’ didn’t, in the words of Robbie Robertson, ‘sound like what I was hearing in my head.’ When Levon Helm handed over the drum stool to Richard Manuel and switched to mandolin, Robertson’s lusty, pompous “rag” morphed into something that sounded like turn-of-the-century New Orleans…a conductor -flexible and joyful work.
Buy or stream the 50th anniversary editions of The group, including both the original and an unreleased and vastly different alternate version of “Rag Mama Rag”.