Where the heck is Cripple Creek?
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:
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:
Here's an essay from Newton Family Singers' Jan Gilpin, who's been adding her flute as well as her voice to the sound of our group. Like many of us, she shares her love of music with her family, although -- also like many of us -- she's finding that making music has a lot of competition for her children's attention.
It’s that time of year again – my oldest son Everett, a freshman, must choose electives for next year. The Newton North catalog is full of interesting classes, but his schedule only has room for a few. He tells me TV Production is his first choice, then maybe Robotics.
“What about Band?” I ask him. He’s played saxophone since elementary school. Is he really going to give it up?
This is one of the hardest things about watching your kids grow up – it’s like pruning your garden. If you cut back all the scraggly and wayward branches, the rest of the plant will be stronger and healthier, and the blooms will look better. But which branches to cut, to sacrifice for the rest of the plant? And who gets to decide what to cut?
I have always tried to include music in my children’s lives. I played them Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Taj Majal and They Might Be Giants. I took them to music classes where they learned songs from around the world, banged on drums and shook little eggs filled with sand. I signed my two oldest sons up for piano lessons, and encouraged them to learn an instrument in school. Both chose the saxophone and joined the school band. While my kids learn a great deal, and improve each year, they would rather spend their free time doing other things. So far they haven’t completely rebelled, but I wonder if I’m paddling against the current.
Growing up, music was always part of my life. At church each week the whole congregation would sing hymns a cappella, in four-part harmony, as best we could. As a family we sang around the piano, in the car, and caroled in our neighborhood. My sisters and I all took piano lessons.
One memorable Christmas I received my very own flute under the tree. I was thrilled to get it, and knew it had not been an easy purchase for my mom because money was tight. Maybe I liked the flute because no one else in my family played it. My older sister, who was always better at piano, became my accompanist. We would spend hours practicing together, aiming for that magical moment when we finally mastered a particularly difficult piece.
Music was a part of what drew me to my husband. When I first met him in college, he was working as a DJ at the local dive bar. Later I was impressed to find out he had managed the college radio station the previous summer. He also grew up with music in his life, playing the French horn and trombone in school, and serving as the bugler for his summer camp. He didn’t mind getting up extra early to run to the clock tower to play Reveille; it was fun to wake everyone else up!
Neither of us ended up with a career in music, but we still wanted our three sons to learn to play, just as we wanted them to learn to swim, or ride a bike. In this age of slick commercial radio, iTunes, American Idol and The Voice, it can seem like music making is only for professionals, or people who are amazingly talented. But making music together can be a wonderful way to connect with others – whether it be family, friends, or strangers.
Some of our influence has rubbed off: music has become very important to Everett. He is always talking about his growing Spotify list. The other day he proudly announced it had reached 400 songs. He often walks around the house with his smart phone, bopping around to his latest favorites. Sometimes he offers me one of his ear-buds and insists I listen along.
“Isn’t this a great song?” he says, looking eagerly at my face to see my reaction. I smile and nod my head to the music. Whenever he hears songs that appeal to him – on the radio, in TV ads, You Tube videos or movie trailers – he can’t wait to look them up and add them to his list. My husband and I also offer suggestions from our youth, and some of them are among Everett’s favorites. The other day when we were cleaning the house, he cranked up “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and everyone stopped bickering and started dancing. He may be more of a music consumer than a creator, but for now I’ll take it.
I recently bought a book of classic pop tunes for the saxophone, with piano accompaniment. The pieces are easy enough to master with just a little practice, but have complex arrangements that are fun to play. Once a week or so, I make the boys play a few with me, and together we tackle “House of the Rising Sun,” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They grudgingly agree, and we dive into the piece, trading the melody and harmony back and forth, working out the kinks as we go along, sharing the satisfaction of playing together. Then it’s all over and they’re back doing their own thing. But I’m hopeful that the musical connection we made will linger with them for at least a little while.
Of course there are forces working against me. My sister and I often played because we didn’t have much to occupy us in the afternoons besides homework or Love Boat reruns. My boys have computer games, apps, Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of channels on cable to distract them. But these can also be sources of inspiration. They discovered one of their all-time favorite songs on You Tube: “Star Wars (John Williams is the Man)”.
Recently they’ve figured out how to play the catchy saxophone hook in the song “Thrift Shop.”
And I still have my youngest son, Toby, who hasn’t started any instruments yet, but still shakes little eggs in his music class and sings with me each week in the Newton Family Singers. My hopes and dreams for him are still just buds on branches, no need to prune just yet.
Everett finally decided on his electives: Robotics; TV Production; and two blocks of Symphonic Band. He chose the minimum commitment but he didn’t quit. I guess he’ll be giving that scraggly branch another season in the sun.
Ooh, I just thought of another song I can tell Everett to add to his Spotify list!
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.