Saturday, December 18, 2010

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - The Band

SONG: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

WRITTEN BY: Robbie Robertson

PERFORMED BY: The Band

APPEARS ON: The Band (1969)

In a making-of documentary concerning the Band's self-titled album, Robbie Robertson recalls a visit with Levon Helm's parents in Arkansas:

"I was at Levon's house and I was there with his mom, and dad. At one point in the conversation his dad said - just kiddingly, but there was some sincerity in it at the same time - and he said to me, 'Well, you know, Robbie, one of these days the South is gonna rise again.' "

He seems at once pleased and troubled by the recollection. The same feeling I have every time I listen to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".

Is it an ode to a vanished way of life? And if so, which way is that? The way of the bunkhouse and the lash?

Is it a plea for understanding of those still suffering, at least in their imaginations, from scars left by the War of Northern Aggression?

It is easy to jump to either conclusion. But it is more reasonable to assume that what Robertson wrote is but a well-crafted character study. He evokes a time and place with entirely human longings that are relatable if a bit uncomfortable. It's a great little piece of Realism. A holding-up of the mirror in which one sees the good and the bad, the beautiful and the grotesque. It makes the listener yearn for a simpler time and glad to live in a more civilized age. Through songs like "Dixie", each and every Band listener is invited to share the experience of American heritage, even or especially the unflattering parts.

And like all great songs, it has an irresistible melody.

---

THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN
-Robbie Robertson

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 ringin',
The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the people were singin', they went,
La, la-la, la-la, la-la,
La-la, la, la-la, la, la-la, la,

Back with my wife in Tennessee
when one day she called to me,
"Virgil quick come see,
"There goes Robert E. Lee"

Now I don't mind choppin' wood
and I don't care if the money's no good,
You take what you need and you leave the rest,
but they should never, have taken the very best,

The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the bells were ringin',
The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the people were singin', they went,
La, la-la, la-la, la-la,
La-la, la, la-la, la, la-la, la,

Like my father before me
I will work the land,
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 ringin',
The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the people were singin', they went,
La, la-la, la-la, la-la,
La-la, la, la-la, la, la-la, la,

The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the bells were ringin',
The night they drove old Dixie down,
And the people were singin', they went,
La, la-la, la-la, la-la,
La-la, la, la-la, la, la-la, la.

---



5 comments:

  1. Great song, great entry. For further reading, here's an interesting piece on the recording: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct06/articles/classictracks_1006.htm

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  2. I had no idea that song was about the Civil War. My husband who is a Civil War afficianado didn't know either. It was released when I was 8 and he was 9 so it's a song we've always known and heard, but I guess never paid attention to. Thanks for the post.

    Liz

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  3. Robbie may have written it as a nod to Levon's southern birth.

    For the record, George Stoneman was a Union cavalry general. In 1865, he led a series of raids during Grant's siege of Petersburg, possibly tearing up tracks connecting Petersburg with Danville, VA line.

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  4. The greatest rock album ever.

    Sheesh. I hate that sort of hyperbole.

    But in this case it's very nearly true.

    Three great lead singers. Accomplished on upwards of two dozen instruments between the five of them. Garth Hudson, one of the really remarkable musicians of any genre over the past forty years. Some of the very best songs ever written. And all delivered without makeup, strobe lights, smoke machines, glitter or any other BS.

    A really remarkable group for whom the album The Band is the crowning achievement.

    Eric Clapton is quoted as wanting to have joined the group back in the day. Van Morrison too had a strong connection and his duet with Richard Manuel on 4% Pantomime on 'Cahoot's is a really wonderful thing. As is his contribution to The Last Waltz with a rollicking 'Caravan'.

    I still listen to the recordings regularly and they are as fresh and original as they were forty years ago. Joan Baez' massacre of 'The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down' is a useful reminder of just how hip these guys were.

    In the end they were musicians and did serious work which endures while so much of what was taking place at the times sounds...(to be generous) dated.

    Saw Levon Helm last summer and he still brings a load when he sits behind his kit. The voice is damaged from surgery and hard living but he definitely tells a tale and remains a remarkable drummer.

    Sadly drugs and alcohol (and the lure of hanging with Martin Scorsese) took a horrible toll on what will always be one of my very favorite groups.

    This is useful:

    http://theband.hiof.no/

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  5. Arthurstone took the words right out of my mouth, this was indeed the finest rock album ever.
    I say in mixed company that The Band were the best band of the late sixties, early seventies. When no one is around I say they are the best band ever (that's so The Beatles fans can't hear and raise a ruckus).

    If I might be self-interested, I did a piece on the group at http://www.timegoesby.net/weblog/2010/07/elder-music-the-band.html

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