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Acadian Driftwood

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

As usual, I've tried to assemble as much as I can from various sources, whether I agree with them or not. At least virtually all the comments are then in one place.

Copyright © Peter Viney 2000

Acadian Driftwood
Written by Robbie Robertson
with French translation by Marcel Lefebure & Francois Cousineau
From Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1975)

Canadian cold front, moving in ...

Acadian farmers (57K), from a plate in "Longfellow's Poetical Works" (1877)
The first time I ever tried to discuss the lyrics of this song was in the year of its release, 1975. I was teaching English as a Foreign Language in the south of England, and suddenly in 1975 and 1976 we had a series of groups of Quebecois students. The question in everyone's mind was why they had travelled 3500 miles to learn English. I asked them why they hadn't simply gone to Toronto. The reply surprised me, "Oh, we didn't want to go to Canada." Not Toronto, not Ontario, but Canada. Many of them were at near beginner level, and I used to get irritated that they didn't seem to have picked up English words that must have confronted them daily on bilingual notices, money, cornflakes packets and so on. There are sound linguistic reasons for this "shutting out" process, by the way. In retrospect, they had made a sensible choice. In the USA and Canada they then taught English as a Second Language, and the textbooks assumed (and usually still do outside Quebec) that all learners wanted to be assimilated into the local culture. Texts spent a long time on applying for jobs, getting social security numbers, speaking to your supervisor, finding an apartment. In Britain, we assumed that learners wanted to learn the language for international communication, without joining the culture, and this is what these students, all of whom were at university in Quebec, wanted. At the end of courses, I used to play Acadian Driftwood and discuss the lyrics. Or rather, sit back and feign total ignorance while they told me about the story behind the lyrics. The bit they enjoyed most was explaining the French at the end to me, getting me to say it aloud, and correcting my awful pronunciation with great severity. It's great to correct the teacher. I have to be honest, as far as melody and rhythm went they universally preferred Jupiter Hollow (which I made no attempt to explain), but they were all around 18 to 21, and more into Roxy Music than The Band (or Quebecois folk music). We had a lot of fun. I'd say "Oh, I can't make any jokes about the royal family - I don't want to offend (Pierre) - I know how deeply loyal he is" whereupon they'd shout for some royal jokes, preferably rude ones. While I was teaching them, I was approached and offered a job in Montreal by their sponsoring university, one of those side turns in life that I didn't follow. So the discussions can't have caused too much offence. When I finally visited Montreal, nearly twenty years later, I spent ages persuading my teenage daughter (in her fifth year of school French) to at least go and buy an ice-cream in French. Her constant reply, "Nah. This lot all understand English really," shows the basis for an understandable cultural sensitivity!

So, to start with that chorus line, Canadian cold front moving in ... I always interpreted this as a reference to an alien force moving in, rather than a description of Canadian weather from someone who saw themself as living in Canada.

The story behind the song


The French colony of Acadia (French Acadie ) was founded in 1604. It comprised Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, as well as parts of present-day Quebec. It extended into what is now Maine, and Pentagoet, the Acadian capital from 1670-74 was near Castine, Maine. The French must have arrived on a gentle summer's day. Dictionaries all say Acadia is a Micmac Indian word, but I always assumed it was named from Arcadia - a place of rural bliss, as in Arcadian paintings of the Renaissance. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxon settlers were more realistic, or arrived in less clement weather, because they chose to call the central area Nova Scotia, or New Scotland. Planes from Britain to any part of the East coast of America overfly it, and my view from 37,000 feet (I'm an avid ground watcher) places the British description of the topography as accurate. But the first British settlers in the area were Scottish and until 1701, though England and Scotland shared a monarch, they were officially separate countries.

The North America of the early 18th century was divided between the English speaking colonies which became the original thirteen United States plus Newfoundland; the French-speaking colonies in New France (present-day Quebec and the area that is now Ontario, plus the whole Mississippi Valley), the French colonies of Acadia and Louisiana; and Spanish territories in Florida, Texas, the South-West and right up the West Coast. Borders were vague. The division between what became the USA and Canada would not have been predictable.

The border areas were disputed and dangerous, as the British and French tried to forge alliances with the Native Americans. This was played out in 'Last of the Mohicans' territory. It has fascinated me since I was a first year student of American Literature. Some doubtlessly wise authority believed literature should be studied chronologically, so the first year led us extremely slowly from the Puritan poets via Benjamin Franklin to James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. It was the second year before we experienced any genuinely major writers, Hawthorne and Melville. Set amidst such a mind-numbingly dull menu of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, Fenimore Cooper shone, and we were set to read all five Hawkeye novels. Being young and ill-aquainted with the realities of academia I was foolish enough to actually read them.

Acadia had a troubled history. As early as 1613 the British had destroyed Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal). The British claimed Nova Scotia from 1621 to 1632, and again from 1654 to 1670. They finally captured Nova Scotia in 1710, and the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht awarded it to Britain, while the French retained Cape Breton Island and Ile St Jean (Prince Edward Island) until 1763. Halifax was founded in 1749, and soon had a comparatively large English-speaking population of 4000, nearly all ex-New Englanders. Someone must have remembered Cromwell's idea of settling Scottish Protestants into Irish Catholic areas as a control mechanism, German and Swiss Protestants were invited to settle in Lunenburg, until someone had a better plan.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (22K)
The deportations of Acadians started in 1755, a year before the Seven Years War broke out. The deportations were a concerted attempt to "ethnically cleanse" (one of the nastiest euphemisms ever coined) the area. As such, they reverberate more now than they did 25 years ago. There was a second wave in 1758, when a further 3500 Acadians were evicted from Prince Edward Island. New Englanders started settling in the fertile Annapolis valley in the 1750s.

When the Seven Years War ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, New France was ceded to Britain. Some Acadians were allowed to return, and today about one-eighth of the population of Nova Scotia is of Acadian descent. Offers of free land attracted immigrants from New England, who were around one half of the population by the time of the American revolution. During the revolution some 35,000 loyalists relocated there from the thirteen colonies. The town of Shelburne was established in 1783 by 10,000 fleeing loyalists, who later dissipated through the province.


The American poet, Longfellow, describes the deportation of the Acadians and their trek to Louisiana in the epic poem Evangeline (1849). The Band's song Evangeline of course also refers to "Evangeline from the Maritimes". The facts are stated in a "Prefaratory Note" (sic) by Longfellow, and these are as much history as Robertson would have needed:

In the year 1713, Acadia, or as it now named, Nova Scotia, was ceded to Great Britain by the French. The wishes of the inhabitants seem to have been little consulted in the change, and they with great difficulty were induced to take oathes of allegiance to the British government. Some time after this, war having again broken out between the British and French in Canada, the Acadians were accused of having assisted the French, from whom they were descended and connected by many ties of friendship, with provisions and ammunition at the siege of Beau Séjour. Whether the accusation was founded on fact or not, has not been satisfactorily ascertained: the result however was most disastrous for the primitive, simple-minded Acadians [1]. The British government ordered them to be removed from their homes and dispersed throughout the other colonies, at a distance from their much-loved land. This resolution was not communicated to the inhabitants till measures had been matured to carry it into immediate effect: when the British governor of the colony; having issued a summons calling the whole people to a meeting, informed them that their lands, tenements and cattle of all kinds were forfeited to the British crown, that he had orders to remove them in vessels to distant colonies, and that they must remain in custody until their embarkation. [2]

Robertson refers to either "gypsy tales" or "gypsy tail winds" [3] (lyrics on the site) and Longfellow describes the scene on the shore:

Like to a gypsy camp, or a leaguer after a battle
All escape cut off by sea, and the sentinels near them
Lay encamped for the night the houseless Acadian farmers

... and a few lines later:

But on the shores meanwhile the evening fires had been kindled
Built of the drift-wood thrown on the sands from wrecks in the tempest

And the departing Acadians watch their village burn from the sea. It's worth a lengthier quote:

Many a weary year had passed since the burning of Grand-Pré
When on the falling tide the freighted vessels departed
Bearing a nation, with all its household goods, into exile
Exile without an end, and without an example in story
Far asunder, on separate coasts the Acadians landed
Scattered were they, like flakes of snow, when the wind from the north-east
Strikes aslant through the fogs that darken the banks of Newfoundland
Friendless, homeless, they wandered from city to city
From the cold lakes of the north to the sultry Southern savannas ...

Longfellow, whatever his status in poetic fashion, has a rhythm and musicality that has inspired composers. Mike Oldfield once ventured an interesting recording of Hiawatha. Robertson's friend Neil Diamond also wrote a song called Longfellow Serenade in 1974. [4]

The Statue of Evangeline at Grand Pré (26K)

Canada to New Orleans

Storyville, and the interviews surrounding it show that the journey from Canada to the Southern States was the turning point in Robbie Robertson's young life. The tale of people who made the same journey, who travelled from Canada to New Orleans encapsulates this.
Matt Kennedy
During the war, the French of Nova Scotia, now under British occupation, were forcibly moved and scattered throughout the British colonies. Many made their way further south, through the Delta and settled in Louisiana. It's kind of ironic, when you think about it. The war formed the first connection between Canada and the Delta. A connection that would occur again when Levon Helm ventured north from the Delta to connect with Canadians of English, French and Native American ancestory. Given Robbie's historical sourcing, it's tough to imagine that the irony slipped past him, maybe even inspired him. [5]
The French colony of Louisiana was under-exploited. The French had always found the sugar islands of the Caribbean to be vastly more profitable colonies than the mainland. They even refused to swap the whole of Canada for Guadeloupe in 1763. In 1721 the population of New Orleans and the surrounding area totalled just 420 people, and even by 1745 there were only 3200 settlers, holding 2000 slaves. [6] It was the influx of the dispossessed Acadians in the late 1750s that jump-started the colony. The word "Cajun" comes from "Acadian". However, the original settlers of New Orleans in 1717 were mainly French-Canadian rather than French from France itself. French Canada was already 100 years old at the time. Which is why Robbie's dispossessed Acadians have kin living south of the border. Louisiana fell under Spanish control from 1763 to 1800, when it returned to Napoleon's France. Then in 1803 it was sold to the United States in The Louisiana Purchase.


I'm going to leave this all to Matt Kennedy:
Matt Kennedy
In 1754, territorial disputes between the British and French colonialists began boiling over as both countries vied to settle out the fertile Ohio valley. This area was also home to arguably the largest and most powerful confederation of Native Americans in North America. It stretched from Ontario (where Robbie's ancestors were members) and south along the great lakes and west through modern day Illinois. At the time, the Ohio Valley was also part of the great American Forest. It may have been the largest single forest on the planet--stretching from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River (to see that area cleared out today is a heartbreaker). When shots were fired, the fight was over the most eastern edge of the Ohio valley, modern day Pennsylvania.

The tensions exploded in 1754 as English Col. George Washington was sent to patrol the Allegheny river and deliver a message to the French commander that their encroachment would not be tolerated. Meanwhile a band of Virginians attempted to construct a fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. French Canadians drove them out of the nearly completed structure and took it for their own at Fort Duquense (modern day Pittsburgh, PA).

Washington, now armed with fresh troops from Virginia attempted to take back Duquense, but failed in a brief, but bloody skirmish. He continued to fall back to a hastily built structure, Fort Necessity, where he surrendered to French forces on July 4, 1754. The first battle of the "French-Indian War." Skirmishes continued for the next two years until war was formally declared in 1756 and lasted until 1763. The outcome of this war effectively drove the French as a colonial power from North America.

The "French-Indian War" ended in 1763 with the ascension of George III in England. George's conciliatory nature towards the French so irked William Pitt (namesake of Pittsburgh, and Prime Minister during the war) that Pitt resigned and took the wind out of hawks in parlaiment.

With George suing for peace, the British in firm control of the Ohio valley and most of eastern Canada, Fredrick the Great, France's military benefactor from Prussia, saw the opportunity to cut his losses at the expense of territories in the New World, where Prussia had few interests. As a result, as noted, all North American territories were transferred to the British from France, save the island of New Orleans. All French interests WEST of the Mississippi were transferred to the Spanish. France later regained control of the area West of the Missippi, which was sold to the infant United States in 1803.

The events of the war led directly for the drive for American independence. Flush with a seasoned officer corps, and burdened by George III's increasing taxation (to pay for the war, ostensibly), the colonies grew defiant. Having fought and won a war against another world power (France) colonial leaders believed that demanding and fighting for some semblance of autonomy was a viable option, even if it meant bloodshed. [7]

Historical accuracy?

I would not deny that Robbie Robertson skilfully created a lyric and melody that expressed the emotional truth of what happened, and expressed the spirit of the people. That's not the same as historical truth. Shakespeare's "Richard III" is bad history, but good art. On the other hand, "Braveheart", "The Patriot" and "U-571" are bad history and bad art.
Robbie Robertson
After the battle between Montcalm and Wolfe in 1759, after Britain won, it was put to the people living there (Acadie) that they had to swear allegiance or give up their land. So some of them went to the old country, some of them went to the French islands of the Caribbean, and some across the border down the Mississippi to Louisiana. The ones who went to Louisiana became the Cajuns and the ones who stayed became Canada's outcasts. They don't have a language, the French don't understand their French and they don't really have a nationality. [8]
Pedantic? Moi? But the song (and the quote above) contains some bad history. The oath of allegiance and the subsequent tragic expulsions of Acadians took place in 1755 and 1758, while there are references in the song to "what went down on the the Plains of Abraham" [9] where the British General James Wolfe defeated the French under The Marquis de Montcalm in 1759. Both Wolfe and Montcalm received fatal wounds in the battle. The Acadians were expelled as a precautionary measure before the war (1756-1763) got going, not as a result of it. The Treaty that was broken in the song should be the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, not the 1763 Treaty of Paris. It begins:

The war was over and the spirit was broken
The hills were smokin' as the men withdrew

Which puts the starting point at the end of a war (1713 or 1763), which it wasn't. But this image makes for a much better story, so (like the "film version" of a book) it starts by painting a picture of a defeated nation that sets the mood. The new reality might convey the message better than the simple facts.

Not only that, Levon sings (Robbie's anachronistic words):

We had kin
livin' south of the border ...

What border? In 1755 North America did not consist of the United States and Canada. There were fourteen independent British colonies (the thirteen plus Nova Scotia), New France (i.e. Canada) and Newfoundland. There wasn't "a border" till the Revolutionary War / War of Independence, so there was no reason to think of south or north of it. Nova Scotia sent four representatives to the Continental Congress, wavered, then decided not to join the USA, leaving thirteen. If you think back to the time, Nova Scotia might have become part of the USA, or modern Maine might have become part of what is now Canada. The border between New Brunswick and Maine remained in dispute until 1842. [10] The map of settlement left a large (though decreasing) unexploited gap between the English colonies and the French ones. The fact that there were two million English speakers to 70,000 French speakers was most significant.

Benteen pointed out in the Guestbook that the Acadian farmer is singing retrospectively about the border. Fair enough, a song's not a history lesson. But maybe Robbie missed out on having Levon drive him to the library, as he did for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The theme of "Acadian Driftwood" remains the same whether the events were after the Seven Years War or before it. [11] In the 1750s there must have been a border, though probably vague and unmarked, between the British colonies and the French , a border that persisted at its southern end until the Louisiana Purchase some 50 years after the expulsion of the Acadians. The Indian tribes survived in the gap between the two.

I also recall Robertson Davies "Murther & Walking Spirits" where the party of loyalists flee New York and head up the river towards Canada. They definitely had a concept of a border between the thirteen colonies and those areas which hadn't signed up for independence - because they were thinly settled and not yet self-governing.

Hoskyns says the song was inspired by a show Robbie had seen in Montreal, Acadie, Acadie, so perhaps any inaccuracies can be traced to that. Robertson lived in Montreal briefly between Woodstock and California. It's also possible that the conquest of New France (=Quebec) is being confused with the Acadian deportations several years earlier.

The Lyrics in detail

Verse one

Robbie is back in the first person narration historical story. The song utilises the Band's trademark swapping of lead vocalists to good effect. Whether it's three singers telling one man's story, or whether we're switching between narrators is irrelevant. I feel the latter, but then it emphasises that the stories are the same. Richard sings the more narrative passages, Rick (I think) takes the ice-fishing one, Levon has the more personal "farmer" ones. The pattern is one for half a verse, another completes the second half, then all three sing the chorus.

The war was over and the spirit was broken
The hills were smokin' as the men withdrew
We stood on the cliffs and watched the ships
Slowly sinking to their rendezvous

See above (Which war?). The mood though is of defeat, and the hills are smoking behind a departing army. It comes directly from Longfellow:

Many a weary year had passed since the burning of Grand-Pré
When on the falling tide the freighted vessels departed

The ships are sinking from view over the horizon, a common enough nautical image, but the word incorporates the idea of sinking below the waves, declining, coming to an end. Rendezvous is ironic, whether intentionally or not, in that it's a word of French origin. The French government has waged a futile campaign against loan words, or "franglais". English has been more robust in simply adopting as many foreign words as it can, with rendezvous being a major example. The word gives a French air, while being common in English. It's a mark of French culture (here sinking) which has been left on the victorious English speakers. It's important to remember that it's English speakers, not the English. George Washington was a colonel in the British army fighting the French, and most of the combatants were to become Americans within twenty years. The ships are the British convoy formed to deport the Acadians.

Then Levon takes over:

They signed a treaty and our homes were taken
Loved ones forsaken. They didn't give a damn
Try'n' to raise a family. End up the enemy
Over what went down on the Plains of Abraham

The treaty, presumably the 1763 treaty which ended the French & Indian war, actually came years after the expulsion - unless he refers to earlier treaties. The impersonal "they" is used to refer to unseen government agencies. The simple guy is just trying to raise a family, finding himself defined as the enemy of his own country, now that ownership has changed. Or it could be more complex according to Douglas Fetherling:

Douglas Fetherling
The key line of the song must be the one about being "the enemy of (sic) what went down on the Plains of Abraham." The enemies (that is, victims) of history are common in Robertson's songs, even in less serious ones. he illustrates that the little people who get trampled by events, not the politicos, warriors, and nabobs, are the substance of history. In this way Virgil Kane, an American, and the unnamed Acadian, at least a putative Canadian, are alike. This is a higher level of historical thought than one finds in Dylan, whose deepest understanding of people unlike himself comes in such early songs as "Restless Farewell," about an iron ore miner's widow in the present day, though like Dylan, Robertson is a fervent believer in using modern music to bring history to the public. [12]

Fetherling misquotes the line. The singer is not the enemy of what went down, but he ended up (=became) the enemy over (=because of) what went down.

Wolfe's headquarters (28K) at the Battle of The Plains of Abraham
There are two points in the song where the language is suddenly modern "what went down ..." (here) and "this isn't my turf" (later). This sounds like deliberate anachronism, but you get back to the old argument about language in historical drama. When someone complained (in the USA) that the American accents in "Ben Hur" jarred, it was pointed out that the original participants would have been speaking Latin. There's no reason why, once you translate it, it should be in any particular accent. Interestingly, in "Gladiators" largely British accents were used, and it seems audiences prefer their Romans speaking in British than American. Here, the original displaced settler would be speaking in 18th century Acadian French, so there's no reason why that should translate into 1920s English rather than 1970s English. I think though, that the anachronisms give the song a bite, an effect that is probably deliberate.

The Plains of Abraham

David Powell
Some thoughts on "Acadian Driftwood": Robbie Robertson, of Mohawk & Jewish descent, would be familiar with stories of wandering tribes and the concept of strangers in strange lands. In addition, his wife Dominique, a French-Canadian, perhaps had a hand in educating Robbie about the plight of the Acadians. I would have to agree with mattk on the double meaning of the line "plains of Abraham." As the book of Genesis recounts in the story of Abram/Abraham, God tells him to go forth from the city of Harran, in the land of Sumer, to "the land that I will let you see." Thus Abraham & his family are led to "the land of Canaan." It is interesting to note here that the publishing company for The Band's songs on their second album through the "Cahoots" album is named Canaan Music. Later in Genesis, Abraham looks out across "the plain" and witnesses the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire. Centuries later, the book of Exodus picks of the story of the descendants of Abraham, the children of Israel, as they are led out of slavery in Egypt to "the promised land" by Moses. [13]
Matt Kennedy
The comments on Dominique couldn't be given enough weight. In the early 70s, according to Marcus' Mystery Train, Dominique was very concerned and vocal supporting cultural autonomy for Quebec, which played a role in the Robertson's short-lived stay in Quebec between leaving Woodstock and arriving in Malibu. I expect her personal views weighed heavily in inspiring Robbie to write both Acadian Driftwood, and possibly even Evangeline. [14]

Bill Munson
While there's no doubt that Robbie Robertson is capable of biblical references, I don't see the reference to "the Plains of Abraham" as necessarily being all that clever. That's just what the battlefield has always been called (in English). I suspect that the person who decided to call the area "the Plains of Abraham" rather than "Abraham's field" was the one making the biblical reference. [15]

I agree with Bill Munson about the "plains of Abraham" not being a reference of any religious significance. The field where the battle was fought belonged to a farmer called Abraham Martin (or Machte) and the name was just the Plains of Abraham. When I was at school in Britain in the late 50s / early 60s, Wolfe in Canada and Clive in India were emphasized as two of the major figures in world history, on a par with Columbus and Napoleon. This was taught in classrooms adorned with world maps where large blobs of pink indicated the British Commonwealth. We learnt how Wolfe's troops had bravely scaled the Heights of Abraham to reach The Plains, repeating a feat that Wolfe had also achieved at the Battle of Louisbourg against the Acadians in 1758. We learnt the soundbite AND the famous last words (Soundbite: "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes"; Famous last words: "I die contented").

"The Death of Wolfe" (68K) by Benjamin West
I suspect that Canadian classrooms in Robbie's schooldays would have placed a similar emphasis on Wolfe, and that the battle on the Plains of Abraham was considered a major turning point in world history. I wouldn't be surprised if similar maps adorned the walls, perhaps along with reproductions of Benjamin West's painting "The Death of Wolfe". The teachers might have been right. Historians love the parlour game of "Virtual History" where you change one event and extrapolate a different world. The alternative history goes like this. Montcalm wins. The French retain Canada and expand. The American colonies don't reject Britain, because they need military help against the French. No American revolution. France encourages large-scale emigration to Canada to ease its social pressures at home. Result: No French revolution ...

Robbie Robertson is fond of double references, and I think David is right in saying there's some indentification with wandering tribes - Mohawks, Jews, Acadians and also the references to a gypsy tail wind (or tale).

The chorus

Acadian driftwood, Gypsy tail wind
They call my home the land of snow
Canadian cold front movin' in
What a way to ride
Oh, what a way to go

The lyrics on site have the chorus as:

Acadian driftwood, gypsy tail wind
They call my home the land of snow ...

Others hear this as:

Acadian driftwood, gypsy tale ...
When ... they call my home the land of snow ...

Both are explicable - a gypsy tail wind presumably "roams" therefore altering the ship's passage to and fro. The Acadians became nomadic.

The lyrics on site definitely have a couple of errors. There's an "and" printed before "Some stayed on ..." which I don't register, and I hear Levon singing "We worked in the sugar fields ..." while the lyrics have "I've worked in the sugar fields ..." The lyrics have "Sailing out of the gulf ..." and I think it's "Sailed out of the gulf ..." None of these are important, but they bring up this question of how accurate the sources are.

The vocal has a definite pause after gypsy tale/tail, and I wouldn't rule out this deliberate play:

Gypsy tale ... (fooled you) winds (oh, so it must have been tail, not tale).

It's not the first time Robbie Robertson has used the nature of song for word play / deliberate enigma.

I mentioned the Canadian cold front before.

Douglas Fetherling
Perhaps his choice of Canadian subject is a natural outcome of the situation. Like Joni Mitchell, Robertson turns to Canadian subjects for consolation the way one buys one's hometown paper at those stands in Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard, just to see if the old place remains standing, to show that one still cares. But because he is more a journalist and less an autobiographer than Mitchell, he does not turn to his own childhood, as she does. Although, like her, he reaches for the stock images of Canada ("winter in my blood"), he also quickly refutes them- as in the line about TV weather reports, the main source of Canadian references for most Americans. [16]
I don't think he's right at all - it's an image of cold winds of change from Canada, though a reference to that typical weather forecast fits with the suddenly modern references to "my turf" and "what went down."

What a way to ride, what a way to go seems to refer back to being blown around and off course by the erratic wandering tail wind from the north, driving them south.

Verse two

Richard (singing in the third person):

Then some returned to the motherland
The high command had them cast away
Some stayed on to finish what they started
They never parted, They're just built that way

True, some returned to France. Whether the high command is the British who deported them, or the French who signed away their homeland (preferring to keep the sugar riches of Guadaloupe) is ambiguous. But the indominatble farmers, some of them at least, stayed put.

Levon (singing in the first person):

We had kin livin' south of the border
They're a little older and they've been around
They wrote in a letter life is a whole lot better
So pull up your stakes, children and come on down

The general story switches back to the individual one. The kin south of the border were the Acadians who'd settled New Orleans a few years earlier. Theirs is an invitation. (I don't think it's worth investigating how likelythe device of a letter would have been in those days). Pull up your stakes is a great phrase.

Verse three

The verse falls into two parts again, describing two incidents. And now Rick Danko takes over as the lead voice.

Fifteen under zero when the day became a threat
My clothes were wet and I was drenched to the bone
Been out ice fishing, too much repetition
Make a man wanna leave the only home he's known

The first incident is a picture of life in Acadie in winter. Ice fishing doesn't feature as a pleasurable pastime, but something that has to be done repetitively for subsistence. As this repetition makes him want to leave his home, we assume that ice fishing is not normal, so much as a sign of poverty. I'm not sure how cold fifteen under zero is, I guess it depends whether you're working in modern Canadian (Celsius) or modern American (Fahrenheit)! Whichever, no wonder the day becomes a threat.
Map - East coast of Canada (129K)

Sailed out of the gulf headin' for Saint Pierre
Nothin' to declare. All we had was gone
Broke down along the coast, but what hurt the most
When the people there said, "You'd better keep movin' on"

Saint Pierre et Miquelon is still a French colony 15 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. All I could find out about it is that it changed hands between the British and French several times before becoming permanently French in 1816, and that the population of 6500 has not increased over the last century. I suppose it was a French speaking staging post / temporary refuge. The Gulf should be the Gulf of St Lawrence, which would figure. If you were leaving from the east coast of Nova Scotia for St Pierre you wouldn't go through it, but the main British garrison at Halifax was on the east. From the west coast of Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island it also works, though not from Longfellow's Grand Pré where the route would take them through the Bay of Fundy to another gulf, the Gulf of Maine.

The Acadians got no solace from the English-speaking colonies in their journey. These might be coastal areas in Nova Scotia, but I'd imagine it means the coastal areas as they passed the America colonies heading for Louisiana. It sounds like the plight of refugees from The Balkans passing through Europe today.

Check back to Longfellow and you get the wind blowing from the tail, you get the coast of Newfoundland and you get the unfriendly inhabitants of the places they passed.

Far asunder, on separate coasts the Acadians landed
Scattered were they, like flakes of snow, when the wind from the north-east
Strikes aslant through the fogs that darken the banks of Newfoundland
Friendless, homeless, they wandered from city to city
From the cold lakes of the north to the sultry Southern savannas ...

Verse four

It falls into two again.

Everlasting summer filled with ill-content
This government had us walkin' in chains
This isn't my turf. This ain't my season
Can't think of one good reason to remain

I'm not too confident on this one. There are two interpretations. Both work.

First: The government of Nova Scotia literally had Acadians walking in chains. The summer would have been the easiest time to round-up the farmers, and it was no longer their "turf" so there was no reason to stay in Acadie.

Second: This links to the next section where the Acadian is in Louisiana. For an Acadian, the heat down there would be everlasting summer. But Louisiana isn't their "turf" and the everlasting summer isn't their season - they're people of the north. And there's no reason to remain there. I don't see where the walking in chains fits, unless it's a reference back to Acadie or they were treated like slaves in the south. The daily toil of 18th century indentured servants was little different from slavery, except importantly that they could see an end to their servitude, and the race issue led them to be chosen as overseers.

Levon is chosen as the voice of the one who worked in the south.

We worked in the sugar fields up from New Orleans
It was ever green up until the floods
You could call it an omen, points ya where you're goin'
Set my compass north, I got winter in my blood

This either links from the first section and continues the theme, or contrasts. Ever green could be one word or two, and for a farmer life as well as fields could be "ever green" when things weregoing well. Whatever, it didn't work out in New Orleans and they decide to return north.

The French section

The lyrics must have been vital to require two translators from someone with a French-Canadian family. There was some dispute in the Guestbook over the printed French lyrics (which suggests they aren't from a Song book), and they were amended. They now stand as:

Sais tu, A-ca-di-e, j'ai le mal du pays
You know, Acadia, I long for the country (I am homesick)
Ta neige, Acadie, fait des larmes au soleil

Your snow, Acadia, makes tears in the sun (or for the sun)
J'arrive Acadie, teedle um, teedle um, teedle ooh

I am arriving Acadia (or I am coming Acadia)

"makes tears in the sun" is an ambiguous one. Snow melts and forms tears, an image of the snows of Acadia. Or the memory of your snow brings tears to my eyes (here) in the sun (of Louisiana). I'd ignore my French teachers' constant advice, if I had to translate it, and carry the distinction between vous / tu into English, on the grounds that while it was already rapidly dying by the 1760s, isolated and more conservative communities retained a thou / you distinction. But Thou knowest would look completely pretentious in the translation line!

So the Acadian returns home.

The Music

Richard Manuel - vocal, clavinette
Levon Helm - vocal, drums
Rick Danko - vocal, bass
Robbie Robertson - acoustic guitar
Garth Hudson - accordion, piccolo and chanter (bagpipes)
Byron Berline - fiddle

The music tries to create a French-Canadian feel, with accordion, bagpipes and piccolo. The piccolo has a military, tin-whistle feel. They added Byron Berline on fiddle.

Robbie Robertson
We've known Byron (Berline) from way back when we used to play the circuit in Oklahoma. Rick has played fiddle on a few songs in the past but we needed a special flavour for Driftwood. it was difficult to do and we didn't want to take an incredible amount of time to get it right. [17]
Robbie's acoustic guitar blends into the song well, and part of the problem with The Last Waltz version is the switch to electric. Northern Lights, Southern Cross was always Garth's album, and it's the levels and references that he's put throughout that make the song.

Overall impressions

Opinions differ wildly. Barney Hoskyns finishes Across The Great Divide with a "very personal selection" of the "very best of The Band." It's number one.
Robert Palmer
This was the masterpiece of Northern Lights and one of Robbie's best songs ever. [18]
Barney Hoskyns
However great the other songs on Northern Lights, the album's centrepiece was still Acadian Driftwood. Comparable in its evocation of defeat and injustice to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down ... this epic track turned Robbie's old American dreams on their head. Instead of pining for the South, the Acadians of Louisiana yearn for their cold Canadian homelands ... the total effect was so breathtakingly beautiful that it made you want to cry. the care that had gone into each vocal phrase, and the love that seemed to burst from the three voices blending in harmony, restored all one's faith in the group. [19]
Rob Bowman
Acadian Driftwood is the gem. It is one of Robbie's all-time masterpieces, the equal to anything else The Band has ever recorded ... Robbie's ability to create a fictional historical voice that can speak for several thousand real ones is a gift to behold. [20]
Barney Hoskyns
The standout, Acadian Driftwood showcased everything that had made the Band so special: the detail and craft of Robertson's writing, the spine-tingling harmonies of Helm, Danko and Manuel; the sheer genius of Hudson's playing and arrangements. [21]
Chris Morris
Acadian Driftwood
is a bow to the Band members' Canadian heritage, a grand exposition of history that bears comparison, in both its execution and its impact to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down ... the saga of an entire people is encapsulated in the song's seven minutes; as the song sails out on a wave of French-Canadian lyrics, one palpably feels the tug of ancient time. [22]
Guinness Encylopedia of Popular Music
Northern Lights, Southern Cross, their strongest set since "The Band" included Acadian Driftwood, one of Robertson's most evocative compositions. [23]
As a civil war buff and also a farmer, let me assure you that Acadian Driftwood is as good or as bad as, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and King Harvest. Actually Acadian Driftwood is probably more historically correct than Dixie or for that matter Harvest. The point you miss is that all three songs evoke a feel; honest or fraudulent about a time or situation. Regardless, I choose to not shoot the messenger but to applaud him for moving me with a tune to research a subject. [24]
Richard Patterson
Can't add too much to the already comprehensive posts on Acadian Driftwood, except to say that I think it is the last great "collective" statement by the Band. That is to say, all three principle vocalists contribute fine performances, the music is a perfect setting for the lyrics, and the lyrics are sentimental yet compelling. From Robbie's opening guitar riff, to Garth's accordian and piccolo bits, to Byrone Berline's fiddle part, this is one big, complex, accomplished arrangement that the Band pulls off beautifully. Northern lights, Southern Cross has always struck me as a dark, ominous record. Even the upbeat tunes like Ophelia ask "why do all the best things disappear" (although this is balanced by Garth's great Lowrey organ fills). This record often gets critisized for being overly sentimental, and sure enough Hobo Jungle and It Makes No Difference always make me want to cry, but I ask you, isn't consistantly getting this response from your listeners really high art ? I mean when Dickens killed off Little Nell was it base sentiment or high art ? [25]

But there's an opposite viewpoint:

Greil Marcus
The set's big piece, Acadian Driftwood ... aimed for the level of The Band, and missed. [26]
Art Dudley
We can point to the wildly over-rated Acadian Driftwood as the first offense in a too-long movement wherein established rock stars get in touch with their (fill in the ethnic blank) roots. [27]
Donald Joseph
Sorry, all, but the emperor is naked, as to Acadian Driftwood. Technically it's excellent, sure, & the restrained performance is nice. But it's always sounded obviously-forced to me -- Robbie trying hard to write a tune up to his standard attained on the earlier l.p.'s, back when he & the other 4 boys were still buds, & Levon was willing to drive him to the library to research a tune. I heard D'wood again the other day, & had all the same thoughts: It's not in the same league, [28]

My own opinion changed while compiling this. It was a song I'd always loved, but given a remote control, Northern Lights and ten minutes only, I'd select Jupiter Hollow first, and It Makes No Difference second. Give me fifteen minutes, and it's there. Third choice. Repeated listening made me feel it's brilliant, but self-conciously brilliant. He's trying hard to recreate his "historical narrative" pieces in a new setting, and I believe it's heartfelt. On Cahoots he tried too hard and fell flat on his face. Here? No, he did it superbly, but the effortless grace of The Band isn't there. The effort, and the craft reveal themselves in a way they don't on The Band.

It's a message song, and I don't usually like message songs. This one resonates more now than it did in 1975. Recently in London, there were Kosovars selling bottled water from tubs of ice on a street corner. What was suspicious was that they had at least ten different brands, and all the seals looked odd. Nobody was buying. They get moved on, but they just re-appear at the next corner.

A couple of gypsy women were sitting on the pavement a little further along Oxford Street begging with the usual comatose children stretched across their laps, probably drugged. Five years ago beggars with children were unknown on the streets of London. Now they're everywhere as the displaced of Europe turn up at the doors of the rich, and they look foreign, too. People get irritated, resentful, uncomfortable, aggressive about this phenomenon. People were muttering about the lack of any police presence to move them on.

Even Queen Elizabeth has complained that the smell of cooking onions from illegal Albanian hot-dog vendors is invading Buckingham Palace. It seems that the police can move them on for trading in salmonella sausages on the streets of London, but the laws don't cover Royal Parks. And the area adjacent to the Palace is a Royal Park, and full of tourists, and the vendors are immune from those who would move them on. Prince Andrew, so the tabloids say, was so enraged by the smell that he went out one morning and moved them on himself.

When I got back home, my local paper had a report about a group of travellers (PC speak for English gypsies) who were camped out on some public football pitches for the third time in three years. All the usual fears were expressed. They're accused of leaving human excrement all over the playing fields, having savage dogs and expensive cars, theft rates go up in the neighbourhood etc. And it takes ten days to get the paperwork done before the police can move them on (and they know this).

And Acadian Driftwood started playing in my head:

Nothin' to declare. All we had was gone
Broke down along the coast, but what hurt the most
When the people there said, "You'd better keep movin' on"

Recording history

Studio albums

Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1975)


Anthology II (1978)
To Kingdom Come (1989) 2 CDs
The Collection (1992) (Castle)
Across The Great Divide box set (1994) 3 CDs
The Shape I'm In: The Very Best of The Band (1998)


Tears of Grief (Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, 1976)
Take A Load for Free (The Paladium, New York, 1976)
The Complete Last Waltz 3 CDs (+ Joni Mitchell / Neil Young, 1976)

The Greek Theatre show was 25 August 1976. The guitar chords are chunky but dominating and messy, as is the whole arrangment. I had a few moment's doubt as to whether the "ice-fishing" verse was Rick or Richard on the original track, but this makes it clear- Rick at full exuberance dancing around the melody.

The Paladium show on 18 September 1976 was also an FM broadcast and has been cited as their best ever live performance. But on this song, Richard's voice is shaky and the first couple of lines are messed up. They take it too fast, even faster than LA, where it was already faster than the original, as if they're in a hurry to get it over. The balance is pretty bad with the accordion competing with the lead vocals. It goes straight into The Genetic Method, which is an uneasy combination.

It's often been said that the omission of the song from the released The Last Waltz is the greatest fault of the set. This is based on admiration for the song rather than sensible assessment of the performance.

Brian Hinton
With Neil Young, Joni Mitchell joined The Band to supply backing harmonies on Acadian Driftwood, a song too delicate to flower in live performance, so omitted from both the triple album drawn from the event, and the resulting movie. [29]
It's also true that Mitchell and Young made a fine mess of the first chorus before settling down, which would have meant major over-dubbing. Richard Manuel's voice is gritty and rough, which does the mood no harm, but coming as it did after Caravan, they sound exhausted and washed-out. Like a few other great Band songs, it's not ideal for live performance. Garth proves the exception as ever with a wonderful accordion solo.


  1. "primitive and simple-minded" sound pretty insulting in modern English. Longfellow starts the poem with the words "This is the forest primeval" and as he believed in the concept of the noble savage, he intended this as a compliment.
  2. Prefatory note to Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  3. For Longfellow, the word gypsy would have been a romantic image, as for Robertson, as for Hugarian Gypsy Orchestras. The word is as non-PC as "red indian" in 2000, but in this context, I'm going to stick with it rather than use "romany" or "traveller".
  4. I know how much regular readers enjoy Band-Neil Diamond links. I can't see that the song has anything to do with Acadia.
  5. Matt Kennedy, Guestbook entry 26 September 1999
  6. Morison & Comager, 'Growth of the American Republic- 1'. I never imagined I would ever find cause to peruse this worthy tome again.
  7. Band Guestbook, 26 September 1999
  8. Quoted in sleevenotes to "Anthology Vol II"
  9. Patrick Daspit points out on the page for the song, that this refers to farmland owned by Abraham Machte just west of the citadel in Quebec City and it was the site of the deciding battle between the English and French forces. It is now a park.
  10. The present border runs through the St Croix Island Historical site, where the first Acadian colony was established in 1604. It's jointly administered by the USA and Canada.
  11. Matt Kennedy points out that the Seven Years War was known as the French-Indian war in North America.
  12. Douglas Fetherling, "Some day Soon - essays on Canadian Songwriters" Thanks to Tracy Rotkiewicz for sending me this.
  13. Band Guestbook, 28 September 1999
  14. Band Guestbook, 28 September 1999
  15. Band Guestbook, 28 September 1999
  16. Douglas Fetherling, "Some day Soon - essays on Canadian Songwriters"
  17. Crawdaddy, 1976. Also quoted by Hoskyns.
  18. Robert Palmer, sleevenotes to "Anthology Volume II"
  19. Barney Hoskyns, "Across The Great divide"
  20. Rob Bowman, sleevenotes to "To Kingdom Come"
  21. Barney Hoskyns, sleevenotes to "The shape I'm In: The Very Best of The Band"
  22. Chris Morris, sleevenotes to "Northern lights, Southern Cross" CD reissue 1990
  23. Guinness Encylopedia of Popular Music, ed. Colin Larkin, 2nd ed. 1995
  24. Benteen, The Guestbook, 25 September 1999
  25. Richard Patterson, The Guestbook, 18 November 1999
  26. Greil Marcus, "Mystery Train" 4th edition
  27. Art Dudley "Across The Great divide: the Band on CD" The Listener, Spring 1995
  28. Donald Joseph, The Guestbook, 25 September 1999. Ampersands are intact as requested. Even 'four' is '4'. I wouldn't dare to change a word, Donald :-)
  29. Brian Hinton, "Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now" (1996)

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