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‘Up On Cripple Creek’: The Story Behind The Band’s Song

Robbie Robertson tells the story behind one of The Band’s most famous songs.

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Photo © Elliott Landy/www.elliotlandy.com

On November 2, 1969, The Band gave their only performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The famous host introduced them by saying, “Here are the new recording sensation for youngsters, The Band!” They opened the show by performing the Robbie Robertson-penned song “Up On Cripple Creek,” which was the fifth song on their eponymous second album, and which was released as a single by Capitol on November 29 that year.

The writing of “Up On Cripple Creek”

“Up On Cripple Creek,” which draws on The Band’s musical roots, is sung from the viewpoint of a truck driver who goes to Lake Charles in Louisiana to stay with a lover called Bessie. In an exclusive interview with uDiscover Music, Robertson looked back on the creation of one of his classic songs.

“I had some ideas for ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ when we were still based in Woodstock making Music From Big Pink,” recalls Robertson. “Then after Woodstock, I went to Montreal and my daughter Alexandra was born. We had been snowed in at Woodstock and in Montreal it was freezing, so we went to Hawaii, really as some kind of a way to get some warmth, and to begin preparing for making our second album. I think it was really pieces and ideas coming on during that travelling process that sparked the idea about a man who just drives these trucks across the whole country. I don’t remember where I sat down and finished the song, though.”

The lyrics are full of wordplay and alliteration – as well as the title, there are repeated references to “a drunkard’s dream” – and contain some wonderfully vivid imagery. The final recording featured drummer Levon Helm as the lead vocalist. In one verse he sings, “Now there’s one thing in the whole wide world/I sure would like to see/That’s when that little love of mine/Dips her doughnut in my tea.”

Robertson laughs as he recalls the phrase. “The doughnut line just sounded good to me at the time and I didn’t hear anybody writing in that kind of way. It’s sometimes hard to describe where lyrics come from.”

The influence of Spike Jones

Another memorable line is about Spike Jones, a bandleader, and musician whose zany songs made him a cult hero in the 40s and 50s. He even sang a satirical song about Adolf Hitler that included blowing raspberries at the Nazi leader. Robertson penned the following lines in “Up On Cripple Creek” in tribute to this musical innovator:

Now me and my mate were back at the shack
We had Spike Jones on the box
She said, “I can’t take the way he sings
“But I love to hear him talk”
Now that just gave my heart a throb
To the bottom of my feet
And I swore and I took another pull
My Bessie can’t be beat

Robertson is still enthusiastic about his affection for the music of Spike Jones And The City Slickers. “Yeah, I was a Spike Jones admirer,” says The Band’s songwriter. “I thought the way that he treated music was a healthy thing. He could take a song and do his own impression of it that was so odd and outside the box – and in many cases hilarious. I liked him a lot.”

“Up On Cripple Creek” is also notable for breaking ground in featuring a Hohner clavinet played with a wah-wah pedal. The riff, which was performed by Garth Hudson, is heard after each chorus of the song – and set a trend that was followed in lots of funk music in the 70s. The song also appears in The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz and they performed it regularly on tour with Bob Dylan. It has also been covered by Oak Ridge Boys and Eric Church.

The song’s legacy

The Band’s original version, produced by John Simon, reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. In January 1970, in the wake of the success of their new album, The Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Robertson has admitted that the song is not dealing with particularly sophisticated people. Did he want fans to like the protagonist of “Up On Cripple Creek”? “I didn’t care,” laughs Robertson. “I just wanted to write something that was stirring inside of me. I didn’t know anything about this man’s journey, except that I had to pursue it in a song.”

This article was originally published in 2019. It’s being republished today in celebration of the anniversary of the single’s release. The 50th anniversary editions of The Band can be ordered here.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. C.H.

    November 29, 2019 at 7:17 pm

    As great as the band were, Levon Helm’s vocals made the song a classic. (IMO).

    • Chet56

      November 30, 2019 at 2:59 pm

      Based on Levon’s comments over the years, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the reason “it’s sometimes hard to describe where lyrics come from” is because they originated with Levon.

      • RL Pinsuc

        November 30, 2019 at 3:50 pm

        Really? Because Leoni and wrote so many great songs since the band broke up?

      • Noonmark

        January 22, 2020 at 6:04 am

        That’s just nonsense. Helm utters some insults and insinuations in his dying days that have no bearing in reality and suddenly the song-writing was primary by Helm?

  2. Emmett Grogan

    November 29, 2021 at 9:55 pm

    It’s so disgusting to hear Robertson continuously trying to rewrite history, make him seem like the “good guy”, and take credit for Levon’s work and the rest of The Band. We all know Robbie is a narcissistic egomaniac and I personally have seem him do some really shitty things, but he needs to stop his house incessant drive to take credit for everything. Next thing you know he’ll claim to have taught the rest of The Band how to play their instruments!

  3. Dan Finn

    November 30, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    You have a misquoted lyric here. The line is “now that just gave my heart a throb (not fall) to the bottom of my feet” Great song. Great band.

    • Todd Burns

      December 6, 2021 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks Dan! We’ve made an amendment to the article to reflect that. Appreciate you flagging it with us!

  4. ray Tuhro

    December 1, 2021 at 2:15 am

    Amazing group of talented guys my favorites are Rick and Levon but they would not have accomplished what they did without Robbie Robertson.

  5. Dk

    December 1, 2021 at 2:02 pm

    Levon never even claimed to have written the lyrics or the music, so that’s just plain nonsense. No, the certainly would not have accomplished what they did without Robbie–and I love both Rick and Levon–considering Robbie wrote the vast majority of the songs.

  6. Dk

    December 1, 2021 at 2:14 pm

    Also, Emmett Grohan, I’d like to know what credit for Levon and the others work you think Robertson has been taking? The guy wrote the songs, get over it. Not Levon, not Rick, not Manuel, not Garth. Call him an egomaniac, but he wrote the tunes.

  7. Bob

    December 2, 2021 at 2:58 am

    Having been in a few bands, I absolutely agree that there has to be a leader even if it’s not spoken about in the band you’re in. Robbie Robertson was the obvious leader because of his close, tight friendship with Bob Dylan, he learned how to compose great songs. I have no doubt that the other members wrote or changed a line or a chord here and there but not to the degree of being a co-writer. If that’s how it works than George Harrison and George Martin And Ringo Star should have been given writing credits on several of the Lennon-McCArtney songs.

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