Photo © Elliott Landy/www.LandyVision.com
While Robbie Robertson wrote many of The Band’s classic songs – like the tale of Confederate soldier and trainman Virgil Caine in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – mercurial keyboardist Richard Manuel penned several classics as well, like “In A Station” and “Tears Of Rage” (the latter a co-write with Bob Dylan). Robertson and Manuel also wrote together in one of the great overlooked songwriting partnerships in music history. Songs like “When You Awake” and “Katie’s Been Gone” are a marriage of Manuel’s longing lyrical sense and Robertson’s tight songcraft.
“Katie’s Been Gone,” originally recorded during The Band and Dylan’s informal basement recording sessions at Manuel and fellow Band members Rick Danko and Garth Hudson’s house, The Big Pink, in West Saugerties, New York, in 1968, was released as part of the two-disc The Basement Tapes in 1975. The song – in essence, an open letter from an abandoned lover – has long been rumored to be an homage to Karen Dalton, an Oklahoma-born singer and fixture in the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York in the ‘60s. Somewhat of a cult figure, Dalton came to more prominent light when Dylan name-checked her as one of his favorite singers in Greenwich Village in the book Chronicles, Volume 1.
The enigmatic Dalton would surely have made for appealing subject matter for what Robertson calls – in a recent interview with American Songwriter – The Band’s “American mythology.” On 1971’s In My Own Time, Dalton’s second album, she recorded the traditional tune “Katie Cruel,” which is where, presumably, The Band songwriters got her nom de chanson. Dalton must have been performing the song in the years prior to recording it, since The Band’s version pre-dates Dalton’s recording.
In both songs, the character plays a sort of belle dame sans merci. In “Katie Cruel,” she’s no longer polite society: “When I first came to town, They called me the roving jewel, Now they’ve changed their tune, They call me Katie Cruel.” In “Katie’s Been Gone,” she’s a restless lover who’s left her man behind: “Katie said that I was her only one, But then I wonder why she didn’t wanna stay?”
Manuel sings the lead vocal on The Band’s recording of the song, and delivers what Greil Marcus calls in the album’s liner notes “the kind of love song only Richard Manuel can pull off.”
Katie’s been gone since the spring time;
She wrote one time’n sent her love
Katie’s been gone for such a long time now.
I wonder what kind of love she’s thinkin’ of.
If you can hear me,
I can’t wait to have ya near me.
Oh, Katie, since ya caught that bus,
Well, I just don’t know how things are with us.
I’m still here and you’re out there.
Katie laughed when I said I was lonely.
She said, There’s no need t’feel that way.
Katie said that I was her only one,
But then I wonder why she didn’t wanna stay.
Dear Katie, if I’m the only one,
How much longer will you be gone?
Oh, Katie, won’t ya tell me straight:
How much longer do I have to wait?
I’ll believe you,
But please come through.
I know it’s wrong to be apart this long;
You should be here, near me.
Katie’s been gone and now her face is slowly fading from my mind.
She’s gone to find some newer places,
Left the old life far behind.
Dear Katie, don’t ya miss your home?
I don’t see why you had to roam.
Dear Katie, since you’ve been away
I lose a little something every day
I need you here, but you’re still out there.
Dear Katie, please drop me a line,
just write, Love, to tell me you’re fine.
Oh, Katie, if you can hear me,
I just cant wait to have you near me.
I can only think
Where are you,
What ya do, may be there’s someone new.
Written by Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson