The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Thanks to Alan Mason & Steve Barker for suggesting this post. – Deskarati

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song written by Canadian musician Robbie Robertson, first recorded by The Band in 1969 and released on their self-titled second album. Joan Baez’s cover of the song was a top-five chart hit in late 1971.

Meaning of song

The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and the suffering of the South. Dixie is a nickname for the Southern Confederate states. Confederate soldier Virgil Caine “served on the Danville train” (the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a main supply line into the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia from Danville, Virginia, and by connection, the rest of the South). Union cavalry regularly tore up Confederate rail lines to prevent the movement of men and material to the front where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at the Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman’s forces “tore up the track again”.

The song’s lyric refers to conditions in the Southern states in the winter of early 1865 (“We were hungry / Just barely alive”); the Confederacy is starving and on the verge of defeat. Reference is made to the date May 10, 1865, by which time the Confederate capital of Richmond had long since fallen (in April); May 10 marked the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the definitive end of the Confederacy.

Robertson claimed that he had the music to the song in his head but had no idea what it was to be about: “At some point [the concept] blurted out to me. Then I went and I did some research and I wrote the lyrics to the song.” Robertson continued:

When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, “Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.” At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, “God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.” In Americana land, it’s a kind of a beautiful sadness.[2]

Context within the album and The Band’s history

According to Rob Bowman’s liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band’s second album, The Band, it has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana. Though never a major hit, “Dixie” was the centerpiece of the record, and, along with “The Weight” from Music From Big Pink, remains one of the songs most identified with the group.

The Band frequently performed the song in concert, and it can be found on the group’s live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). It was also a highlight of their “farewell” concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976, and is featured in the documentary film about the concert, The Last Waltz, as well as the soundtrack album from the film.

It was #245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the Sixties. The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” and Time Magazine’s All-Time 100.

The last time the song was performed by Levon Helm, The Band’s lead singer, was in The Last Waltz (1976). Helm, a native of Arkansas, has stated that he assisted in the research for the lyrics. In his 1993 book This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm writes “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”

Helm refused to play the song after 1976 even though he held concerts, which he called “Midnight Rambles”, several times a month at his private residence in Woodstock, New York.

Reception

Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners:

Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.

Covers of the song

The most successful English-language cover of the song was a version by Joan Baez released in 1971, which peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US in October that year and spent five weeks atop the easy listening chart. Baez’s version made some changes to the song lyric; The second line “Till Stoneman’s cavalry came”. Baez sings “Till so much cavalry came”. She also changed “May the tenth” to “I took the train”. In addition, the line “like my father before me, I will work the land” was changed to “like my father before me, I’m a working man”, changing the narrator from a farmer to a laborer. In the last verse she changed “the mud below my feet” to “the blood below my feet”. Baez later told Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder that she initially learned the song by listening to the recording on the Band’s album, and had never seen the printed lyrics at the time she recorded it, and thus sang the lyrics as she’d (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson.[8] The song became the highest charting U.S. single of Baez’ career, and has remained a staple of her concert set list, from that point forward.

Johnny Cash covered the song on his 1975 album John R. Cash. Old-time musician Jimmy Arnold recorded the song on his album “Southern Soul,” which was composed of songs associated with the Southern side of the Civil War. Don Rich and the Buckaroos covered the track. Steve Young recorded the song on his 1975 album Honky Tonk Man. The song also appears on the album Whose Garden Was This by John Denver, released in 1970. It was also included in his 2001 release, John Denver The Greatest Collection. The Allman Brothers Band covered the song for the 2007 album Endless Highway: The Music of The Band. The Jerry Garcia Band also covered the song live for over 20 years and it is still held as a fan favorite today.

Use in Film

The Band’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was used in the 1977 film “The Shadow of Chikara” (also titled “Curse Of Demon Mountain” and several other titles).

Lyrics

Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “La, la, la”

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there go the Robert E.Lee”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best

The night they drove old Dixie down
{ From: http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/band-lyrics/the-night-they-drove-old-dixie-down-lyrics.html }
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “La, la, la”

Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, na”

The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, na”

This entry was posted in Arts, History. Bookmark the permalink.