That’s the debate among commenters at Songfacts.com. I think I have a pretty good answer, but let’s just review the song a bit first.
Not the best audio ever, but here’s The Band playing live on Ed Sullivan from 1969 performing Up On Cripple Creek:
The cameramen were obsessed with close-ups for some reason. (The same cinematographer later worked on the recent film version of Les Miserables [kidding].) Glad Robbie shaved that moustache off.
And of course, from 1976, Martin Scorsese captured The Band featuring Levon Helm on lead and nice backing vocals from Rick Danko and Robbie Roberston on “The Last Waltz”:
And here’s a clip from “Classic Albums: The Band” currently available on Netflix, that discusses the writing and production of the song — the most telling moment may be the use of a keyboard through a wah-wah pedal. (You can see — but barely hear — the keyboard at 0:52 in that Ed Sullivan clip.) Stevie wonder apparently, used this technique after the Band.
So what’s the song about? The narrator is looking forward to the end of his job (on a mountain) so he can go down to Lake Charles, LA and see his girl, Bessie. When he does see her, they go to the horse track and get lucky, although Bessie is such a free spirit she just throws her share of the winnings into the narrator’s face, “just for a laugh.” She’s clearly a quirky girl, possibly a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before her time. By the end of the song, we realize the narrator has a home where he lives with his “Big Mama” (a wife?) but instead of going there, he’s thinking about visiting Bessie again.
Oh, and when he’s with Bessie, she takes him to “Cripple Creek.”
There are commenters on Songfacts who claim that the song refers to Cripple Creek, CO, and others who make a claim for Cripple Creek, VA, and others who point out that there is no Cripple Creek near Lake Charles, Louisiana, but maybe the Whiskey Chitto is the body of water they refer to.
So where, exactly, is she taking him?
The next clip might help explain:
Mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush played “Up On Cripple Creek” at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2012 with some amazing guests: Jerry Douglas on dobro, Jonathan Edwards on harmonica, and Bela Fleck on banjo among them. Great arrangement.
Sam Bush, et al, segue from “Up On Cripple Creek” to a bluegrass standard, “Cripple Creek” at about 7:00. This song is canonical — 3 chords and found in many beginning bluegrass songbooks, it’s the equivalent of Twinkle Twinkle on piano. As proof of the song’s ubiquity, all the players know the song enough to all take turns at a solo. (I love how one guy plays a pretty good banjo solo but when Bela takes over with his solo and just goes off around 10:55, the guys at stage left bend forward to watch his playing and then throw their heads back laughing at his banjo insanity).
“Cripple Creek” is an American standard. In other words, there’s no way Levon didn’t know this song.
Those guys in The Band were archivists of American music; check out how they join together to sing “Old Time Religion” in a clip from “The Last Waltz.”
So, more about the song “Cripple Creek.” The lyrics to this song are all about kids wading in mud, climbing trees, and tearing around the countryside, free. The chorus:
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on the run Goin’ up Cripple Creek, to have some fun
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on a whirl Goin’ up Cripple Creek, to see my girl
It’s the essence of childish, innocent fun.
Bessie isn’t taking the narrator of “Up On Cripple Creek” anyplace geographically, she’s taking him to a place of innocence and pleasure that his “big mama” back home no longer gives him. Cripple Creek is a state of mind.
Up on Cripple Creek she sends him, indeed.
Okay, some more cover versions:
Here’s Little Feat in Jamaica in 2012 (What’s up with Little Feat? What kind of band has 4 guitarists, and two mandolin players? I mean, besides the Newton Family Singers…):
Notice what song they segue into at the end there…
The audio is pretty bad here, but for those Bruce Springsteen fans among you, here’s Levon’s All Stars in Asbury Park with the Boss. Tell me our own Bob doesn’t sound just like Bruce on that 3rd verse.
Here’s The Band again with an alternate take on “Up On Cripple Creek”:
And don’t miss this one, a local jam in Berkeley, CA saluting Levon with “I Shall Be Released” and then at 4:00, they start (a capella) an “Up On Cripple Creek” that’s lighter on electric instruments and a lot more focused on voices and makes time for solos on cello and autoharp (!).
These folks sound all right, too: