The enduring "Up on Cripple Creek" went high up the Top 40 in 1969, an impressive feat for a band who seemed to appear from nowhere, playing songs that mixed archaic and contemporary themes and sounds. After serving as the backing group for Bob Dylan, the Band released the well-received and enormously influential Music From Big Pink (1968), but it was their self-titled second LP from 1969 that catapulted them into stardom. With a New Orleans groove and the unique jaw-harp texture, from Garth Hudson's Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal, vocalist and drummer Levon Helm sings Robbie Robertson's good-time lyrics about a man going to see a free-spirited woman friend of his in, "Lake Charles, Louisiana/Up on Cripple Creek she sends me/If I spring a leak she mends me/I don't have to speak she defends me/A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one." The lyrics stay true to Robertson's enthusiasm for Americana: history, folk traditions, and mythology. Robertson probably lifted the title image from a traditional bluegrass song, a standard covered by Leo Kotke, among many others. Cripple Creek represents a sort of Shangri-La.
In Peter Viney's article on the song at the excellent Band fan site (http://theband.hiof.no/index_2.html), Robertson comments on the song, "We're not dealing with people at the top of the ladder, we're saying what about that house out there in the middle of that field? What does this guy think, with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? That's who I'm curious about. What is going on in there? And just following the story of this person, and he just drives these trucks across the whole country, and he knows these characters that he drops in on, on his travels. Just following him with a camera is really what this song's all about." While some interpret "Up on Cripple Creek" as a trucker song, one could easily read in autobiographical elements; it is not a stretch to parallel the lives of truckers and groups like the Band who spent a great deal of their career on the road. It is no wonder Robertson would identify with a truck driver. The line, "When I get off of this mountain," could also be interpreted as coming down from the Catskills, where the Band had been making their home in Woodstock, NY. And Levon Helm, the only non-Canadian in the Band, was from Arkansas, relatively close to Louisiana.
In the VH1 Classic Albums episode on the album, producer Don Was notes that the use of the Clavinet -- an electronic facsimile of a harpsichord -- on the song, in a non-traditional, funky style, predates Stevie Wonder's similar use of the keyboard in his own "Superstition." In fact, it was deemed funky enough to have the rhythm track sampled by the hip-hop group Gang Starr on their song "Beyond Comprehension." Recorded on just four tracks, the sounds on "Up on Cripple Creek" are warm and organic, Helm's drums ringing and resonant, a double-headed bass drum pounding out the low end in conjunction with Rick Danko's bass. In addition to the Clavinet, Hudson plays organ on the chorus; Richard Manuel fits in Professor Longhair-like piano triplets as fills; Roberston plays his usual excellent rhythm guitar; and Helm, Danko, and Manuel harmonize as an ensemble on the chorus. They also vamp on a fake yodeling section after the chorus and at the end of the song, each singer reaching for comic falsettos.
"Up on Cripple Creek" has long been a staple of album-oriented radio. It is a light and catchy tune with memorable lines like "drunkard's dream" that resonate for classic rock audiences. The warm production offers a timeless-sounding presentation of the song. But, as is often the case with popular songs, its staying power and status as a classic was anything but foreseen by the bandmembers at the time. On the aforementioned Band website, Helm recalls their first impressions: "It took Cripple Creek a long time to seep into us. It was just like it had to simmer with everybody for a while. We cut it two or three times but nobody really liked it. It wasn't quite enough fun."