The Band's Gift; Dixie and Beyond
by Al EdgeFrom The Band guestbook, April 2011
What becomes the inevitable human tragedy of any war is a sentiment surely shared by all.
There are, of course, some who consider The Band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' to be a song actually romanticizing - from a purely southern aspect - what were the unimaginable horrors of the American Civil War. For me, the song does exactly the opposite to romancing the subject matter. Indeed, I'd go further and proclaim 'Dixie' as one of the ultimate anti-war songs precisely because it manages to convey in such rare and authentic style the numbness felt by just one innocent victim of a war just as that war was drawing to its bitter and bloody end.
Through the song's authentic sound; the simplicity and frankness of the protaganist's reflections we are somehow afforded a lens into the bleak realities the war has inflicted upon him and his kin. I find this far more the case than when listening to some angry outside commentator passing judgement a la, say, dear Bob Dylan.
Sure there's always a place for the more overt protestations about the evils of war as found within the likes of Bob's polemics or Edwin Starr's and Brucie's anthemic condemnations. And I really do applaud the efforts of these artists. But give me rather the subtleties of The Band's reflections affording the listener space to determine the degree of his or her own condemnation.
As for the 'southern' aspect. Yeah, the song is penned from the perspective of the vanquished Confederacy. Yet as much as anything else, that is surely what provides it with its intrinsic poignancy.
The thing is whether or not factually it was a million miles from the reality of the struggle and whether or not we support the North's perceived banner of slavery abolition and/or oppose the South's perceived support of that heinous practise, as far as the neutral observer is concerned it remains time's own slant on history that has firmly established its own truth. And that truth is that the poor lil' ol' downtrodden South was mercilessly overwhelmed by the ruthless war machine of the great big bad heartless North.
Whether we like it or not for the majority of us it is Johnny Reb with his bandaged head and crutch for whom we all feel that tinge of sorrow.
But I'd like to set aside justified/misplaced loyalties for any side. For there is another aspect to 'Dixie', too. It is one that I'd rather concentrate upon and one I feel makes it inappropriate to begin to judge 'Dixie' outside of the broader context of the musical canvas The Band were creating back then.
I originally purchased the single 'Up on Cripple Creek' on its black Capitol label from Myerscough's record shop in South Road, Liverpool when it was first released in 1969. From memory, this was a month or so prior to the actual release of the Brown album.
When I got home and played it in the solitude of my tiny boxroom I can recall thinking to myself something along the lines of... "yeah, not bad, that fellas. Okay, so maybe not quite as good as 'The Weight' but you'll do for me boys.. probably grow on me anyroad."
Following a few plays of 'Cripple Creek', I can recall turning the disc over and playing the song on the flipside. It was the one with the title that seemed far too lengthy and cumbersome to fit into any conventional song.
And stone me. How right I was. As it crackled and soared out of my Dansette like some 45 rpm history lesson, I was left stunned.
Now let's be clear about the nature of my stunned reaction here. This wasn't in that typical 'bowl me over' sort of way you tended to get from hearing for the first time contemporary gems such as 'Heard it Through the Grapevine', 'Hey Jude', 'Like a Rolling Stone', 'Honkey Tonk Women'. Or other mind-blowing stuff like that.
No, this was altogether different. This was more of an enveloping of the sensory system.
Indeed, my initial thoughts were a sort of ... "Now just whoah there a minute fellas!. You can't be doin' this... you CANNOT do a song like this... nobody can... it's just not the way these things are done".
If you get my drift.
For starters it was far too sober and austere. And, even more to the point, too sobering. Far too profound, also. And too historical. And too clinical. In fact it was way too fuckin precise and perfect for the sort of rock song that lay within the basic human right expectations of your average keen rock fan.
And yet - bizarrely - it was, at the same time, also far more outrageous than any rock song you might ever care to name.
In Rock's Bizarro universe, of course.
In this instance, the outrageousness stemmed from the fact that a young rock group could actually manage to create a song that sounded so mature; so battle hardened and world-weary.
Sure 'Big Pink' had kind of prepared us to expect rock music of real quality and maturity. Softened us up a mite. But it had not quite prepared us enough to expect this level of accomplishment. This was the musical equivalent of Sir Walter Scott for fucks sake. Its authenticity was ridiculous. And the sublimity and solemnity of its execution verged on the Berlin Philharmonic.
More than anything else, it really did sound like the men singing it had just trooped away from the horrors of Gettysberg. Or some other nightmare of the conflict. These were guys that were staking their testimony as to what had actually happened; or more pertinently to what they had actually witnessed happening.
Listening to their story as they chewed resignedly on their tobacco was infinitely more real than if you'd watched a score of films or documentaries on the subject. You could sense their angst; feel their weariness; share their pain. That the war had ripped them and their families apart was a given.
And, of course, when a while later the album did come out and you saw that brown sepia cover, you just knew that your inkling had been proved right. These guys WERE indeed straight off that famous battlefield.
Reflecting on why The Band's music so captivated me back then I can now see how the process must have transpired.
What 'Dixie' did - along with but undoubtedly more so than any of those other flawless songs on 'The Band' album - was to form for me a complete whole with the songs of the preceding 'Big Pink' album. It brought a certain symmetry to the proceedings.
By making the link, it afforded me the opportunity to begin to absorb - instinctively [most certainly not consciously] - the statement these fellows were trying to make.
That message was not so much a lien to preaching. Far from it. Rather they were merely to telling it the way it was. The way it had always been. The way they had been told it. They were relaying their heritage and, I suppose more to the point, proclaiming in a way what they and their kinfolk had stood for.
Sure, on their own, that first clutch of songs on 'Big Pink' had been something truly wondrous. In itself it was like nothing else that preceded it. The sheer togetherness and democracy of the sound had pulled you in and wrapped itself around you with its warmth and humour, its candour and its mystery. At the same time, its almost cavernous looseness had lent you the space to find your way into the songs alongside these master craftsmen. Paradoxically, their unparalleled tightness had made you gasp in awe. No feeler gauge in existence could ever get between these fellows.
Then there had been the voices, of course. These truly were dead ringers for something like you ain't ever seen... or heard. Why old Jed Clampett himself sounded positively Queen's English in comparison to these fellows. The thing was, you never knew who the differing wails belonged to.
The rot gut moonshine lead of one would melt into the proverbial country cousin drawls of two others till they all welded seamlessly. Then another would suddenly appear from round the corner to throw in a counter harmony like some friendly neighbour dropping in. And yet another would pop up his head as if through some underfloor hatch with some throwaway back-up line. At times it was as if half the entire neighbourhood were chiming in and out. You simply couldn't keep track.
It was great fun to try, though.
And the bottom line was, 'who cared if it said on the album sleeve notes that four of these fellows were from Ontario?' As far as their "you've got to keep the engine churnin" inflection evidenced, these guys were country bumpkin American. Pure and simple.
Yet, as the more delicately crafted delights of the 'Brown album' unfolded, things became that bit clearer. A fuller picture started to emerge. You got to piece together from just where all that homeliness and sense of community you had felt with 'Big Pink' had originated. Precisely why it had all sounded so authentic and so real.
The fact was The Band were actually offering you a thick slice of an American way of life that was in danger of slipping off the mainstream's radar. And a huge dollop of American culture and history to boot. Sure, you never quite understood it all but one thing was for sure. You knew instinctively you were on pretty safe ground with these boys. These fellas were not out to dupe you. What you were hearing was no false trail.
In a nutshell it was an America that for quite some time had been obscured by events elsewhere. Events that had taken everybody else's eye off the ball. All except these sturdy fellows.
In my own case it was an America I really knew very little about. These were not just the Davy Crockett or Buffalo Bill Cody characterisations with which every kid in Britain was familiar. This was not simply Mississippi riverboats and lonesome tumbleweed blowing through some Wild West ghost town. We weren't just picking bales of cotton or hunting bison here. Nor was it simply a rehash of all that wonderful American popular music that had gone before. Sure there were snatches of all of these things. With The Band, though, there was so much more besides.
For this, rather, was the whole deal.
In other words, this was about the ordinary folks, the ordinary places and the ordinary music of those people and places. This was the ordinary everyday things. Not just the celluloid heroes or the stellar music or the glamorous settings. Sure they had their place too. They were all part of the same American melting pot.
The Band's take, however, was real - the America that lies within the heart and soul of every American. That sense of identity that must only come when a people come together in the way Americans have. Not so much a patriotism but more of an extended community.
It was a rare commodity, indeed. Who knows, perhaps unique to America. Certainly, we over in Britain do not have it on a national scale. Sure there exists a patriotism but nothing like this extended American neighbourhood. That American feel.
The Band's second album in tandem with their first, in particular the haunting and brutal honesty of songs like 'Dixie' managed to capture vital strains of that feel; much of the essential spirit of what that broad American community possibly meant. It made outsiders such as myself feel as if we could connect with it, too. Quite what it must have done to ordinary native Americans I can scarcely imagine - though clearly the delicious irony of the Band's achievement has not been lost on Jaime Robbie Robertson in the intervening years as he has sought to make reparations to natives even more indigenous whose ancestry he shares.
Whether the boys in The Band set out with such an idealist target in mind must remain open to conjecture. At times I believe they did. At other times, I'm not so sure. Of course, I know what I want to believe.
Sure people who are blessed from the heavens with such talent as they possessed would have harboured high artistic ideals. Inevitably, too, they were always going to retain an integrity consistent with those ideals. However, to entertain the notion that they were going all out to capture the very soul of their [four fifths] adopted homeland on vinyl is possibly stretching credibility. Then again, maybe it's not.
When all's said and done, perhaps they were simply doing their darnedest to be true to the gifts that had been bestowed upon them. The fact that their best was enough to create two artistic monuments to their country to rank with any others is simply Americans' good fortune.
And the rest of us mere mortals too, of course.