The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (revisited)
This revised article comes three years and much discussion after the original article. I have expanded some points, and added some of the comments from The Band
guestbook, as well as extra sources, which makes it less of an essay and more of a discussion. As a result, it may seem to dwell long on some minor issues, but this is because these have been the subject of guestbook debate. This serves the purpose of putting it all in one place. Thanks to all the contributors who have made this a joint effort.
Copyright © Peter Viney 2000.
Note: Commentators vary on their preference for Caine/ Cain/ Cane/ Kane. It's a song not a poem, so the spelling is irrelevant. I've tried to follow what people wrote, but can't guarantee consistency.
Tennessee Williams just appealed to me, the flavour of writing, the titles of the things, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - this catches my attention, partially because I had gone to the South from Canada, really ying and yang, really a big extreme, so it hit me much harder than somebody who had gone from Washington, DC down to South Carolina - I went from Toronto to the Mississippi Delta, and … I liked the way people talked, I liked the way they moved. I liked being in a place that had rhythm in the air. I thought 'No wonder they invented rock 'n' roll here. Everything sounds like music. … and I got to come into this world, a cold outsider - cold literally from Canada … and because I didn't take it for granted, it made me write something like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down .These old men would say , 'Yeah, but never mind Robbie. One of these days the South is going to rise again.' I didn't take it as a joke. I thought it was really touching, that these people lived this world from the standpoint of a rocking chair.'
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.
Robertson's songs went further than Dylan's by going beyond metaphor and actually embodying the experience they sang about. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is not a song about the Confederacy, it is a song of the Confederacy.
"Virgil Kane is the name and I served on the Danville train," sings Levon in The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down and after looking at the cover photos, you'd almost be willing to believe that this song dates from the time in which it was set, the last days of the Civil War.
Jonathan Taplin (quoted by Robert Palmer)
It was May and they'd just finished it the night before. They said it'd come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I'd had for, God, I don't know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who'd been involved in the Civil Rights movement and had a whole attitude towards the South, well I loved the music but I didn't understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things … Well, the next day after I'd recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him, "How did that come out of you?" And he just said that being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time … It was so inside him that he wanted to write the song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him.
For non-American readers only, apologies to American readers!
Dixie is a popular name for those southern states that formed the Confederate States of America in the Civil War of 1861-1865. According to two august dictionaries it's "origin unknown". According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the origin lies in banknotes issued by the Citizens Bank of New Orleans prior to 1860. The ten dollar bill had the French "dix" on the reverse, and became known as dixies. So New Orleans was "dixie-land" and eventually the name applied to Louisiana, then to the whole of the south. The song Dixie was written in 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett (who came from Ohio), and became the marching tune for the Confederate armies.
It was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis in 1861. I was taught that Dixie described the states south of the "Mason-Dixon line" between slaveholding and free states, but this might have been a fantasy of my teacher.
This was the track that came to be seen as most typical of The Band album. Levon sings the song in the persona of Virgil Caine, a Confederate ex-soldier who served on the Danville supply train until General Stoneman's Union cavalry troops tore up the tracks. The Richmond and Danville Rail Road was the main supply route into Petersburg where Lee's Army of Northern Virginia were holding their defensive line to protect Richmond.
Stoneman was a pretty obscure character. You have to get into detailed histories of the Civil War to find him mentioned.
In the closing days of the war, Major General George Stoneman, as the commander of the East Tennessee district, oversaw a raid by a division of Union troops across the rugged Blue Ridge Mountians into northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia. Their orders were not to fight battles but to punish and demoralize the Southern civilians. Stoneman, having previously served under General Sherman in the Georgia campaign, had learned Sherman's methods of "total war"-- the concept of targeting civilian as well as military objectives in order to destroy the enemy's will to resist. Stoneman's cavalry troops were still exacting revenge on the Southern civilians at the time that General Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox. Stoneman's forces plundered & destroyed tons of supplies, including foodstocks & grain, along with miles of railroad supply tracks. Even after the shooting war ended, they assisted in chasing down and capturing Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the war, Stoneman remained in the regular army until he retired in 1871 at the rank of Colonel. He moved to California and lived on a large estate called "Los Robles" near Los Angeles. As a Democrat, he held several public offices and was Governor of the state from 1883 to 1887. Stoneman died on September 5, 1894 in Buffalo, New York. Even though Stoneman, on the surface, may appear to be just a footnote in the history of the Civil War, in that part of the U.S. where the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina & Virginia meet, his name lives in infamy. The exploits of his plundering cavalry troops in the last days of a defeated Confederacy are still a part of local legend. In this respect, I feel that Robbie Robertson succeeded in capturing this sentiment accurately in the song.
I've always been amazed at the use of George Stoneman in the song. Stoneman had been a Federal cavalry bigshot earlier in the Civil War but had been banished to the backwaters towards the end. His late war raid that Virgil Caine sings about was a rather small potatoes affair in the midst of the momentous events of the last month of the war. I'd love to find out what book Levon supposedly hipped Robbie to that gave him info on Stoneman's raid.
As we down here in Georgia are well aware, Stoneman & some of his troops were captured just after the Battle Of Atlanta as they headed south. He was later released as part of a prisoner exchange; perhaps this explains his decline in status in the Union army. Just as Dylan created fictional situations in a song based upon a real person in Blind Willie McTell, Robertson used the historical figures of Lee & Stoneman to add an air of realism to his song about the South. Mixing historical characters & events around a fictional story is a method that allows the songwriter to create a mythical atmosphere in the song. While literally inaccurate, the mood the song creates still rings true emotionally to the listener.
Virgil was involved in the fall of the Confederate capital, Richmond in 1865. The final campaign of the Civil War was Confederate General Robert E. Lee's defence of Richmond and Petersburg against the Union forces of Ulysses S. Grant.
A Federal army trying to take Richmond could never be entirely secure until the Confederates were deprived of all use of the (fertile and productive) Shenandoah Valley, and it was up to Sheridan to deprive them of it. Grant's instructions were grimly specific. He wanted the rich farmlands so thoroughly despoiled that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across the Valley would have to carry its own rations. This Sheridan set out to do … and Total War began to be waged in full earnest … Few campaigns in the war aroused more bitterness than this one.
Devastation of the infrastructure.
Napalm in Vietnam.
The siege lasted from June 1864 through to April 1865. Lee's troops were starving and tattered throughout the siege. It is said that they didn't eat at all during the last week(in the winter of '65, we were hungry - just barely alive ), and Richmond finally fell after massive Union assaults on the night of April 2nd/3rd ( By May the tenth, Richmond had fell ). That was the end for Dixie. The surrender was signed by Lee seven days later.
For years the May 10th reference puzzled me, and others too.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell…
Why was it chosen? It wasn't a rhyming word and May 10th was a good five weeks after the fall of Richmond. Of course it is literally true that Richmond had fallen (rendered colloquially as had fell) by May tenth, but that was true of any date in the preceeding five weeks. I wondered if May 10th had significance rather than just being a date some time after Richmond had fallen. The date was debated on the Band web site.
As Peter and I have discussed this May 10 thing before, I figure I can reveal the importance of the date to Civil War historians to the assembled here. Peter, as usual, was perspecacious, and the answer to the question goes a long way towards investigating the roots of these type of lyrics. On May 10, 1865, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured near Irwinville, Georgia. On that same day, President Andrew Johnson announced that armed resistance in the South had come to an end. From the day Richmond had fell (Confederates abandoned the town on April 2 and Federals occupied it on the 3rd) up until May 10, the various organized Confederate forces continued to surrender. By May 10, most if not all had accepted their paroles. On a side note, William Quantrill was fatally wounded on the 10th and died on June 6. So something big did happen on the 10th. Unfortunately, it got confused in the telling, with the author confusing the fall of Richmond with the official end of the war. I do recall that Levon claimed to direct RR to a book in the library that explained these dates. 
Richmond, May 1865.
I have no problem with the May 10 line - Virgil is looking back over some span of years ("it's a time I remember oh so well"), and he may not remember it quite as well as he thinks. It's a conversational lyric, not a history lecture. Besides, "On April the 2nd, Richmond was evacuated" poses rhyme and meter problems. On the other hand, "I drove the train to Richmond that fell" (thank you Joan B.)...now that's a problem! 
Don't forget about the word "by" in "Dixie." If Robbie just made an error with the dates, he should have said, "on May the 10th, Richmond it fell." I think that by picking a date sometime after the defeat, it just makes the finality seem more certain, like it has finally sunken in that it is all over. When Virgil says, "By May 10, Richmond had fell," it's like he's now come to realize that it was a significant event, something that might not have been apparent immediately afterwards.
Even though I'm also relatively fussy about lyrics, and find fast, loose, and sloppy phrases or even "facts" distasteful, I don't find "May 10" terribly disturbing. The line could have been shaped to accommodate ANY date, of course. But to stretch a point, Virgil's narrative is that of a rustic, embittered man who is presumably still "in defeat". The verse opens with glimpses of military devastation and the visitation of multiple ruination: the tracks torn up AGAIN, the hard winter of starvation and mortal weariness. Then the line in question, which brackets the timeline: By May the tenth, Richmond had fell... It's not so unthinkable to interpret "Richmond" in the sense of "the Confederate Cause", rather than in the usual narrower sense of the city-as-military-objective falling. As if one were to say, "By August 6th, Tokyo fell" by way of describing the fall of Japan after the A-bomb attack. I mean, I just picture some grizzled old die-hard Johnny Reb (the very image of Levon, in recent years, in fact) saying in effect, "Shit, that winter was hell on earth, 'n' by May tenth it was ALL blown away..." Poetic license, I admit, and possibly an undetected mistake, error, slip, or oversight. But again, I can imagine Virgil/Levon rebutting criticism with an explosive roar, and a shower of spit, "Hell, I ain't readin' off no damn CALENDAR, son!" The time he remembers oh, so well, isn't necessarily the DATES he remembers. Selah.
Those five weeks from the collapse of Richmond, the capital, to the final capture of Jefferson Davis on May 10th and the official surrender, must have been the worst, total chaos. In those days, communications were slow and unreliable. Some units would have known it was all over, others probably not. Well, Robert Palmer got May 10th first time round - that was the official surrender date, so it was the night that they indeed finally and officially drove old Dixie down:
It gets inside the sense of place and tradition that one finds in the South with insights of rare acuity, and it captures the emotional climax of that apocalyptic moment in Southern history, the Surrender, in a few exceptionally well-chosen words and a dignified, under-stated arrangment.
Virgil returns home to Tennessee, - his wife calls him to see Robert E. Lee passing by.
Robert E. Lee, 1864
Virgil, quick, come see! There goes Robert E. Lee
Lee was idolised in the south, and toured around Virginia setting up education for veterans until his death in 1870. Lee had also ensured that the peace treaty included a binding pledge that former soldiers 'would not at any time be disturbed by Federal authority, provided they lay down their arms and returned home.' Lee personally disbelieved in both slavery and secession from the Union, but felt that his people and his honour came above his personal opinions.
Robert E. Lee expressed this feeling in a letter of 1856 in which he wrote that the holding of slaves was an evil, but he added that their emancipation would result sooner from the mild and melting influence of time than from the storms and contests of fiery controversy.
During the war, Lee freed quite a few of his family's slaves. Lee felt that the war was God's instrument to end slavery. Lee has also been praised for ordering his troops to surrender once and for all, thus avoiding a protracted guerilla war that could have gone on for months and years.
Joan Baez had a cover version which was a major hit (US #3). She added one little word - 'the' - which changed the general into the Mississippi steamboat of the same name. This word is neither in the official sheet music nor in the original studio version by The Band. Even worse, 'Stoneman's cavalry' became 'so much cavalry'. To be fair to Baez, on some live versions Levon gets pretty close to adding a 'the'. Even as early as Rock of Ages it sounds like: There goes -a Robert E. Lee. The question of whether it's "the" Robert E. Lee (a steamboat, or even an army unit with that name) or the General himself has caused some discussion, but I think the quote from Levon's autobiography closes the matter:
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.
In fact Lee never actually visited Tennessee after the war, but moved to Lexington, Virginia as president of Washington College, so it could be argued that Mr and Mrs Kane had a better chance of seeing the riverboat. But Levon's autobiography quoted above makes it sure that he meant the general, not the boat. A comment on the web-site was:
… the fact that Robert E Lee was never in Tennessee after the war doesn't mean that people didn't think they saw him. People in the South after the war constantly thought they saw Lincoln and General Lee, even though they couldn't have, and it would be passed down to generations even though it was historically incorrect.
Pat Brennan added this comment.
Lee never went to Tennessee after the war. The closest he got was probably Charlotte, NC. However, many people-…especially ex-Confederates…claimed to see him all over the country, just as many ex-slaves claimed to see Lincoln after the war. That sort of public hysteria is common; you know, Elvis in Kalamazoo. Since Levon claimed to point Robbie to some books at a library when the song was forming, perhaps he clued Robbie into the phantom sightings. Or, perhaps, Robbie just thought it would be a cool image, whether it had historical weight or not.
The song has something to say about Reconstruction too:
Now I don't mind chopping wood
And I don't care if the money's no good
Having to chop wood wasn't worthy of mention for a small farmer or sharecropper, it was just everyday necessity.
If it's worth saying, then Virgil Caine is doing it for money, not to fill his own hearth with firewood. His independence as a farmer has been lost. He's forced to hire himself out for wages to make ends meet, and poor wages at that, linking him again to the farmer in King Harvest. Another interpretation of the line is that his money's no good because his soldier's wages are all in Confederate dollars, but that was heard as my money's no good, and it's certainly the money not my money. I don't see this one myself, as Pat Brennan says, that wouldn't have been news in 1865 or 66.
The Confederate money was actually "no good" for most of the war, as inflation and speculative insider trading that would befit any confirmed Yankee made the script practically worthless. J.B. Jones's "A Rebel War Clerk's Diary" lays the Confederate economic spiral out in gory detail.
He's not bitter about his economic plight:
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But he is bitter about the waste of life:
But they should never
Have taken the very best
He muses on the death of his brother -
He was just eighteen, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the(mud/blood)* below my feet
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat …
Note the careful juxtaposition of words - Virgil Caine… a Caine … raise a Caine … raising Cain … Ain't no more cane being raised …
The choice of names is perfect for a story about the Civil War, which was described as 'The War Between Brothers.' Cain and Abel.
The thing that troubles me about the Night they Drove old Dixie Down is the part "you can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat" The song is brilliant right up till then but I find this line jarring. In fact, the "raising Caine" image strikes me as being a clumsy piece of word play and a bad pun. (Sorry RR! ) I may be wrong but I've always thought the saying "to raise Caine" expressed good humoured exasperation or exaggeration. For example the children were yelling so loudly they could have raised the dead/raised Caine. As such, the word play seems totally out of place in the song.
Regarding "raise a Caine"; don't jump on the "raising cane" angle and consider the "Ain't no more cane on the Brazos" take. Virgil's brother, born and bred from the fertile land of the south, cut down to grow no more. Makes the line brilliant, doesn't it? In fact, the entire song is brilliant, easily the best piece of popular music to deal with the Confederate defeat. Easily. The chorus fits either side of the fight--the joy of the north and the pain of the south. Oblique yet evocative enough to cast different shades of blue and gray, another brilliant facet of the tune.
All the meanings are in there, and I agree that Pat's is the primary one, but there is a delight in juxtaposing "raising Caine" as well. Words change in meaning, and the process is normally that they become weaker: "naughty" for Shakespeare meant deeply evil. The dictionaries have "raising Cain(e)" as "causing a disturbance; making trouble; uproar". Presumably because Caine (in the Bible) has been dead so long. I'd be amazed if this was deliberate, but the origin of the phrase happens to be mid-nineteenth century!
The official lyrics have Virgil swearing by the mud below my feet. For thirty years, I've heard blood every time. There have been obvious errors in transcriptions of Dylan and The Band before, and I merely smiled at what I thought was another one. I've never heard of a 60s musician who did their own transcription. Usually the publisher sent a young music graduate off with a pen, manuscript paper and the record. Then after a discussion on misheard lyrics , this one came up and I then listened several times to the original and Rock of Ages versions, and I heard "mud". Damn near ruined the lyric for me. You swear by blood, not "mud" unless you're doing a clever and ironic "swearing by mud" to contrast with the expected "swearing by blood". I think that'd be too clever for a song trying to communicate raw emotion. If you've just mentioned your brother being laid in a grave, you swear by the blood below your feet.
Blood as the red stuff, and blood meaning kinfolk. Blood is the more resonant word for me, but it seems I'm wrong. It definitely appears to be mud, and you can give good reason for that as in this 1995 piece:
In a tour-de-force vocal, Arkansan Levon Helm sings about the "Winter of 65" from the perspective of the vanquished. His performance is the antithesis of overblown rock pretension; in fact by deflating the narrative with his earthy delivery (I swear by the mud below my feet, he sings, when a lesser artist would've gone for the melodrama of blood) he only adds to the song's emotional punch.
If you're going with this line of thought, the most common literary reference for the dead and buried would be "dust", the "dust below my feet." You soak dust in blood and what do you get?
The Guestbook discussion and spread of opinion on the subject is an appendix below.
In many interviews, Robbie has discussed the profound effect the South has had on him. In earlier interviews he referred to The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down as an example. In later ones, the same anecdotes were recycled to explain the Storyville album.
The fact that (Dixie) was written by a Canadian - Robbie - is all the more telling. Looking in from outside he could see more than most already inside just looking around.
Again and again, commentators have pointed to the novelty of expressing a Southern point of view about the Civil War. In 1969 a negative view of the traditional South dominated among young Americans. The South brought images of the Civil Rights struggle, the death of Medgar Evers, corrupt politicians like Huey Long 
and LBJ, the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, the murder of Martin Luther King, fiery Ku Klux Klan crosses. Even today, Southern voices are deliberately avoided on most tapes and programs used for teaching American English to foreigners , or for reading the national news, and there is still a degree of antipathy in the North. Robbie has mentioned his love affair with the South. His distance - the fact that he was Canadian - helped. The British, for example, have always held a blinkered, romantic view of the Southern states. Maybe this was bolstered by Gone With The Wind, Maybe it dates back to the Civil War itself, when the British government gave covert support to the Confederacy, inspired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This was somewhat odd, as the British Empire had banned slavery thirty years earlier, and in industrial districts workers identified with the Northern cause. The British ruling class identified with "Southern aristocrats". Politics are about taking the main chance, and it's fair to say that the British government of 1861 to 1865 was far from adverse to a possible break-up of the Union, principally on the grounds of self-interest. France felt much the same, and was stirring the shit in Mexico throughout the Civil War. Napoleon III suggested to Britain that they jointly recognize the CSA. Then the French made Maximilian their puppet Emperor of Mexico. He got shot. Spain was messing in Santo Domingo with similar intentions. A positive image of the South was considerably less surprising in Britain and France, and as a result in Canada, too.
At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, British shipyards were working on three ships designed to break the Union blockade. The timing of the Emancipation Proclamation was partly designed to head off European tacit support for The Confederacy, and to get the ships impounded. It worked.
Morrison & Comager
In England, the Emancipation Proclamation brought about such an upheaval of evangelical, radical and working-class opinion in favour of the union, that no ministry could , if it would, give aid and comfort to the slave power.
Indeed, Karl Marx set up a pro-Union meeting in London in 1863 which resolved that they would not tolerate any interference unfavourable to the North. Perhaps some more conservative voices in Southern history would find the sponsor unsurprising. As distance grew though, the romantic view of the South regained its sway in Britain.
But in 1969, the paen for the departed old South seemed radically conservative to Americans. However, Robbie had subtlety and detailed historical knowledge on his side , that gave the song a contemporary anti-war dimension with quotable lines like They should never have taken the very best', with its immediate application to Vietnam, and the careful placing of Virgil's home, 'Back with my wife in Tennessee'.
Civil War Tennessee conjured up sympathetic images of sturdy self-reliant farmers, rather than pictures of wealthy slaveholders in white pillared mansions among the cotton fields further south. East Tennessee - and the Appalachian mountains in general - were not major slave-holding areas. Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky were wavering between the Confederacy and the Union in 1861, though Tennessee seceded promptly in a second group of four which included Virginia. The dirt farmers in West Tennessee were too far away to identify with the federal government and slavery was part of the local economy. The hill farmers in the east lived on small farms where slavery was neither established nor economically viable, and there was a bias against slaveholders. Levon's home in Arkansas is in the hinterland of Memphis, Tennessee. You'd look across the river at West Tennessee. But the comments about Lee (and the progress of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson's lives) would indicate to me that Robertson was making a subtle point by choosing Tennessee rather than Georgia or Louisiana. Note that Virgil and his brother took a rebel stand as if there was some choice in the matter. The word "rebel" (as in Johnny Reb) sounds (a) Northern (b) slightly perjorative. From the North's perspective it was a rebellion, from the South's point of view it was secession. Would a Southerner have called it "a rebel stand" (or himself a "rebel")? I guess Virgil is speaking after the war, so is accepting the view that it was a rebellion (only the winners write history). But mainly it reinforces the point about Tennessee being a state that had to make up its mind - Virgil had a choice about which stand to take. I see him as a small hill farmer. From (say) Louisiana I don't see there'd be choice or thought in the matter.
Note Virgil's age. His brother "above him" took a rebel stand, and that brother was just eighteen when he was killed. If "above me" means older brother, that puts Virgil even younger when he joined the cause. In 1864 the Confederate Congress extended the age of military service so that it ran from seventeen to fifty. Virgil is singing it after the war, but that can't make him more than twenty / twenty one at the end. That again relates to Vietnam, where the average of those killed or wounded was nineteen. An alternative interpretation to "my brother above me" (see Mike above) is that his brother is in heaven.
Taking the anti-war theme (They should never have taken the very best) a little further, it was said that the impact of the film Gone With The Wind with its graphic depiction of the emotional and physical horrors of war, was a major factor in delaying the US entry into the Second World War. Popular art can change politics and therefore history. We're in the same territory.
Helm has identified most strongly with African-American musicians from an early age, and the song has the power to envoke the tragedy of the South without ever condoning slavery.
It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can't get out from under the singer's truth - not the whole truth, simply his truth - and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day, none of us has escaped its impact. What we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.
Ralph Gleason was reminded of The Red Badge of Courage which is a short novel by Stephen Crane about a young soldier in the Civil War. John Huston made a notable film of the story (which was wrecked by the studio's editors). Crane's 1895 story is about a Union soldier rather than a Confederate one, but is renowned as an example of 'impressionism' in writing and for its innovative techniques. Crane carefully avoids names or taking sides. The central figure is 'the youth' and the opposing sides are 'the men in gray' and 'the men in blue'. And 'Crane' rhymes with 'Caine' This is from the last page:
So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility and it was as if the hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled … he had rid himself of the red sickness of battle.
The chorus with its Na-na-na sounds stands with Paul Simon's The Boxer as the best examples of effective use of the "la la" in rock songs (= na, na or lie, lie or whatever; it's usually transcribed as "la la") to communicate emotionally. The way the chorus goes down is a lament, then there's that little lift of defiance at the end before the final flat, dead double thump on the drums. It conveys the spirit without words.
I just had my mind blown while listening to what before, seemed to be a sort of 'sing-song' filler chorus, (probably because of Joan Baez's version) "The night they drove old Dixie Down and the people were singing".... in those words, I'm (finally) now hearing an account of the heartbroken Caine, in a moment of personal defeat, agonizing over trying to banish from his mind, or come to terms with, the unbearable memories of being there and watching while half of the country was reveling in the devastation of his family and his way of life...
"and 'the people' (but not his people) were singing"...
"and the bells (the wrong side's) were ringing"... 
In the "great minds" category, all that focus on the accuracy of the dates and the final verse got me thinking about the chorus also. And listening to it in my head convinced me that the song's power lies in broad metaphor. I'd never bothered to think about it much before-- of course "THE night" isn't "A night", but a metaphor for the darkness of crushing defeat. Guenevere's point about the bells and singing belonging to the VICTORS was truly an epiphany for me. (Didn't they ring all the bells on November 11, 1918, to commemorate the signing of the armistice?). When you look at it that way, it backlights Virgil's tragic, bitter silhouette all the more intensely!
Guenevere's post brings up an interesting point. What exactly is the chorus of the song about? I had always thought that the bells ringing and the people singing was just kind of imagery of people mourning the end of the Southern culture as they knew it. I didn't think it was supposed to be an actual occurence. I mean, the whole song is kind of a metaphor, because he's not really talking about one actual night when everything happened. The NIGHT they drove old Dixie down never really happened. I suppose it could have been the day when Richmond "had fell," but as we've seen before he's doesn't mention that date specifically.
But now Guen seems to bring up that it could be the Northerners who are ringing bells and singing "Na-Na-Na," as if they're ridiculing the fall of the South and celebrating their own victory, something which I had never even thought of before.
I hadn't seen it that way -bells were also rung for danger and defeat, as air-raid sirens were later, and I'd seen the people singing a lament. But both ideas will work equally well, and I think the idea of the victors' bells tolling, once you've internalized that interpretation, is the deeper one.
As to "the night" I'd say it was a double strike - the night was the night of the surrender, but it also utilises the image of night … death … for the Confederacy.
It's easy to get tied up in the lyrics and forget how musically subtle the songs on The Band are. According to John Simon, it was one of the songs Robbie already had written before the sessions. It was written on piano.
When we were doing 'The Band' album, and I was writing this song, my daughter Alexandra was just born. so she was a newborn baby. so when I was writing this I had to be very quiet. because there was, like, 'The baby's sleeping!' Don't make any noise.' So I kind of got used to the idea of working in quietness. We're talking about all these subtleties and everything, and it wasn't about wanting to play in subtleties, it was about having to play in subtleties. And this song, it was kind of where it came from.
Perhaps because this was mentioned every time credits were discussed on Band compositions, Robbie Robertson has been quite specific on the long genesis of the song:
Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
It took me about eight months in all to write that song. I only had the music for it, and I didn't know what it was about at all. I'd sit down at the piano and play these chords over and over again. And then one day the rest of it came to me. Sometimes you have to wait a song out, and I'm glad I waited for that one.
The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down became as an essential concert number as The Weight. My wife calls it the backbone of the Band.
The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down became a kind of Exhibit A in the vast amount of critical musing The Band inspired on its release in the fall of 1969.
The horn-laden magnificent versions on Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz almost seemed to overtake the original recording. Go back and listen to the original version, at the way a harmonica seems to sit eerily behind the vocals (actually it was Garth dubbing a Hohner Melodica on top of the sound generated by the 'accordion' stop on a Lowrey organ), listen for the little touch of distant trumpet at the end (Garth again). You never got this subtlety in the concert versions.The Rock of Ages version is embellishment, and when you've already got Garth Hudson on board, you don't need any other embellishment, however beautifully it's done - and the horns prologue is great stuff. In concert, it came to segue into Across The Great Divide. Levon has done some fine vocals on live versions, but they tend to be ever so slightly mannered in comparison to the perfect original.
Levon also developed his drum sound.
Levon being the Southerner is the only one who could sing it with conviction. It is also one of the best examples of one of his "hiccup" bass drum patterns.
This is when we started halving the beat on a lot of tunes, which gave us a distinctive thing. Instead of keeping full time rhythmically, we found if we halved the beat we could lay the lyrics in a different place.
I once played the song to a friend with a good musical ear but no knowledge of The Band. His comment was "You can hear that the drummer's really listening to the lyrics." As the drummer was singing the lyrics too, the tie-up is even closer.
It must be the second most recognizable Band song, after The Weight. The third is probably Rag Mama Rag, at least in Europe which puts Levon as lead vocalist on their three best-known songs. But you don't get concert versions after 1976. In spite of the vast number of 80s and 90s concerts by various Band reunions, and solo shows by Levon Helm, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has not been performed live since The Last Waltz. The inside story is that Levon now refuses to sing it, seeing Robbie's portrayal of the south as patronising. This is odd if, as he claims, he participated in writing it. Levon contradicts Taplin on the speed of the recording.
It was another of those workshop songs we worked on for a long time before we got it down.
He's happy to mention it on his drums tuition video, though says very little on the Classic Albums video, just:
We wanted to get a song like that, that addressed that one particular little corner.
It's ignored altogether on the laser disc collection The Band: the Authorized Video Biography. Whenever Robbie narrates the story of The Band on radio shows (e.g. Robbie Robertson Up Close, The Band Up Close, The Band In The Studio) it's included, as it is on the Robbie Robertson laser disc From the Band to the R&R Hall of Fame and the Video /DVD which uses many of the same interviews, Going Home..
The version on The Last Waltz is described by Greil Marcus:
Levon sang with an anger he'd never before given the song.
Sure, but I don't think it was Virgil's fate that inspired the passion on that one. Levon Helm describes it as Maybe the best live performance of this song we ever gave.
The song has come to serve as The original Band's epitaph, and Robbie uses it with great care on his videos. First there's an interview sequence on the break-up:
I used to be able to get everybody's enthusiasm, but now I couldn't cut through the fog anymore … I remember one day going to the studio. We had something we were going to do, and nobody came. I sat there, and I left at the end of the day. And I thought, "Well, I devoted sixteen years of my life to this and maybe that's all it's asking of me."
Pause. Wham! Straight into the chorus of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down to a collage of B&W photos, starting out with Robbie and Levon in chairs, smiling at each other. Robbie describes his angst over the dissolution while it plays softly in the background.
Robbie Robertson does a breathy but affecting solo piano version of the first verse on the VH-1 Classic Albums: The Band programme (which cuts to Levon at The Last Waltz for the chorus), and then performed it live on the TV show Good Morning America in 1998, accompanied by John Simon and the Howard Johnson horn section. Robbie is sensitive to Levon's charge, denying that he was writing it directly "at" Levon, but nevertheless it ceased to get done on stage by Levon or by The Band. But probably Robbie had too much to say about it in various interviews, which got Levon's bristles up. A later note from the website mentioned a Larry King radio interview where Levon simply says they stopped doing it "because it's hard to sing". Shame.
I am indebted to Pat Brennan for commenting on the first version of the article and pointing out some factual errors about the Civil War as well as commenting on the points made and solving the mystery of May 10th. Any remaining inaccuracies are entirely my fault! I'll give Pat the last word:
No one in their right mind would blame Robertson for any mistakes - he's an R&R writer, not a historian Such factual mistakes hardly diminish the power of the song.
The Band in Civil War outfits. Painting from the book Rock Dreams
The Band (1969)
The Band (2000 remaster). The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - alternate mix - this mix features unused overdubs - mixed by The Band, 3 June 1969 (not heard; based on advance publicity)
B-side of Up On Cripple Creek, November 1969, US #25
B-side of Georgia On My Mind, 1977. Released as an endorsement for Jimmy Carter. This B-side might have turned out to be an inappropriate choice!
Official live albums
Rock of Ages (1971)
Before The Flood (1974)
The Last Waltz (1977)
The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down (from Rock of Ages) (1990)
The Best of the Band (1976)
To Kingdom Come (1989) 2 CDs
The Collection (1992) (Castle)
Across The Great Divide box set (1994) 3 CDs
The Weight (1996)
The Collection (1997) (EMI)
The Shape I'm In: The Very Best of The Band (1998)
The Last Waltz
VH-1 Classic albums: The Band - solo performance by Robbie Robertson
The 1976 Saturday Night Live version appears on a Japanese bootleg video,
The Band Compilation 1969-1994
Live At The Hollywood Bowl, 10 July 1970
Crossing The Great Divide (from Hollywood Bowl, 1970)
Royal Albert Rags, London, 2 June 1971
Watkins Glen (bootleg LP) 28 July 1973
This Wheel's On Fire, Jersey City, 31 July 1973
Blue Highways, Jersey City, 31 July 1973
Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, 31 July 1973
Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, 1 August 1973
Love Songs For America, Boston, 14 January 1974
Into The Flood, Washington D.C. 15 January 1974
Down South, Charlotte, 17 January 1974
Fort Worth, 25 January 1974
Before And After the Flood, New York, 31 January 1974, afternoon
The Poet & the Players, , New York, 31 January 1974, afternoon
Bittersweet, New York, 31 January 1974, afternoon
Forever Young, New York, 31 January 1974, afternoon
Paint The Daytime Black, Los Angeles, 14 February 1974
Forbidden Fruit, July 1976
Tears of Grief, Los Angeles 25 August 1976
Live in Washinton (sic) D.C. September 1976 (King Biscuit Flower Hour)
Ophelia, September 1976 (King Biscuit Flower Hour)
Take a Load For Free, Paladium, NYC, 18 September 1976
The Complete Last Waltz, San Francisco, 1976
Joan Baez (US # 3, UK # 6, 1971) (album Blessed Are )
Joan Baez - live version on From Every Stage (US #34 album 1976)
Merle Saunders & Jerry Garcia (Fire Up! )
Jerry Garcia Band (another nine and a half minute choogle)
Ritchie Havens (Live At The Cellar Door)
Jimmie Haskell (California 99 )
Sophie B. Hawkins (Various Artists: Spirit of 73 - 1995)
Steve Young (Honky Tonk Man)
Jimmy Arnold (Southern Soul )
Big Country (Eclectic, 1996)
Swamp Boogie Queen (1998)
Appendix: The mud versus blood debate
This is an edited version of the debate on the Guestbook.
Actually, I would challenge that the line in Dixie IS "blood" and not "mud." "Blood" is more in keeping with the Johnny Reb sentiment of the US Civil War. As recently as the late 70s, my now deceased grandmother, a native of Appalachian Virginia, referred to it as "the War of Northern Aggression." Certainly the recent brouhaha over the Confederate flag flying over the capitol building in South Carolina confirms these sentiments still run strong among Confederate descendants in the South, along with the plethora of bumper stickers still seen throughout the South declaring the Confederate flag as a "symbol of heritage" and not a "symbol of slavery." Speaking as a Confederate descendant (who deplores the use of the "Stars and Bars," for the record), I can't hear my southern relatives using the word 'mud" to describe their sentiments regarding Confederate history. "Mud," simply, does not communicate Johnny Reb's sentiments, where "blood" pretty much nails it. Of course, this could be another case where the original lyrics from Robbie were morphed over time (e.g. "ploughboy" vs. "poor boy," "there goes Robert E. Lee" vs. "there goes the Robert E. Lee," etc). With this group, as we've noted, it can be tough nailing the "official" lyric, as Levon, Rick and Richard did change lyrics overtime. Certainly Band record jackets (if and when lyrics were printed - rarely, as I understand it from my CD-driven collection), are not necessarily a good source.
I always thought it was "blood beneath my feet" too
The original songbook for the first two albums has "mud" as the word in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," not blood, but I've heard both in my mind over the years as well
No matter what anyone says, it is and always be "blood", at least as far as I'm concerned.
I rise in defense of "mud"...not to impugn "blood", which works quite well and whose attributes have been eloquently stated by others. But it is the lyric according to the published sheet music and as sung by Levon. The verse in question begins with Virgil speaking of working the land as his father did. He is not standing on the battlefield during the war, but rather he is back home on his own turf sometime later. As he is not a man given to metaphorical speech, he looks down and swears by what he sees before him with his own two eyes; the mud below his feet. I have to say that the lyric is "I swear by the mud below my feet". I always thought that this was in keeping with the lyric, "Like my father before me, I will work the land". I think this fits in with the song, because their land was so important and precious to them--the figurative "ground" and stability upon which their lives were built and, of course, the literal ground. I always thought he swore by "the mud below my feet" because it was one thing that was ever-stable and provided a basis for everything he worked for and the legacy of his father before him. This is all really esoteric, I know, but it's just my take. I think "mud" is much more in keeping with the spirit of the song than "blood", and it also fits Levon's Southern roots much better in my opinion.
When I tried to console myself to the fact that maybe it really was "mud," I thought that he could be swearing by it because it was Southern soil, it was a representation of his heritage, of all that his family and friends had fought and died for. He wouldn't swear by the actual mud itself, but he would swear by what the ground he was standing on stood for.
Re: Dixie lyrics...It's blood. It makes perfect sense. Robbie's lyrics often reflect Biblical imagery. (Daniel and the Sacred Harp for one.) The Dixie reference would be similar to Abel's blood "crying out." It was an unjust death. (The main purpose of war is power...control over people and real estate, which means BLOOD being shed.) In context the song is the taking of the very best -- the slain brother. ("...Like my brother ABOVE me (he's in Heaven)... He was just 18 proud and brave...) Blood gives the lyric so much more power. Mud would only take the story so far --the battle over the land. But blood takes it to another level. Even a casual reading of Civil War literature will show the overwhelming importance of family, kin (Next of Kin!), etc. Southern roots run deep. When Levon's dad told Robbie the South was going to rise again, he was talking about something deeply rooted in the southern experience
Can't resist leaping into the fray on the blood/mud controversy... I would argue that "blood" makes perfect sense, especially given the line that comes before: "when aYankee laid [my brother] in his grave" -- "blood" then echoes the imagery of countless numbers of the singer's kin and ancestors lying below his feet (in their graves)… the singer is swearing by not just what those people died for in the Civil War, but by what all of what his people had lived and died for throughout their history. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this word.
Actually, I think "mud" makes more sense considering the verse begins with "Like my father before me, I will work the land." What makes the song really powerful, I think, is that it gets beyond the simple southerner=bad/northerner=good stereotype that is propounded in simplistic textbooks. As with most soldiers, the average southern soldier had little to gain from fighting the war. Win or lose, most would go back to their farms where most did not own slaves, just to till the soil again and hopefully live off of it. Anyways, I think it is a sad but great image of this guy who is defeated not really by the war but by the loss of his brother cussing the land which bore him. Note that this simplistic and hopelessly romantic analysis ignores concepts of opposing economic systems.
My tattered "Big Pink/the Band" songbook says "mud"; so does the "Rock of Ages" songbook, which is probably a copy of the former (although the chord frames look different). I vote "mud", with all due respect to the worthy arguments in favor of "blood"-- including the fact that it wouldn't surprise or bother me if Levon actually sung "blood" in concert if it suited him. Mostly because I always heard "mud", and also because I think it's just right in the context of a bitter chthonic lament. Perhaps those among us steeped in the lore of the War Between the States could offer an opinion of what "serving on the Danville Train" actually entailed-- because it occurs to me that Virgil's viewpoint is decidedly UNmartial. He's more a minor Cinncinatus, albeit a defeated one-- a citizen/soldier who leaves the military traditions and high rhetoric on the battlefield, whose speech is rife with the quotidian: the wife, chopping wood, money, land. I'd expect him to swear by his brother's bones before he'd think to echo Lincoln's imagery of blood-hallowed ground.
Regarding Dixie: the song is written from the point of view of a man returned home from the war. He's talking about the end of the war as something in the past. He's not singing about the war while standing on some battlefield; he's standing on the land he's working. Thus, "mud"--almost a metaphor for the difficult conditions he and his family now face-- would be the more appropriate word to match the setting. "Mud" also appears in the RR song/guitar book in which he seemingly had some input. That, of course, doesn't mean that Levon never used "blood" at some point. I was listening to "Unfaithful Servant" from a live tape and Rick sings "That train will be coming, and soon we'll be going." Heavens, he and the Unfaithful Servant are leaving together, which really messes up the meaning of the song. Changing the words in the course of the performance is a spur of the moment type of thing, which rarely relies on or invites post-mortem analysis. Which doesn't mean we won't weigh in on it anyways. The Danville line was the last open railroad line that connected Richmond with the rest of the south. Virgil served as a train guard which was pretty easy duty compared to the condition of the troops hunkered down in the pestilent trenchs near Petersburg VA at the end of the war. My sense was that Virgil wasn't even with his brother when his bro met the Yankee bullet.
Deb from Oregon
My vote goes toward "blood" because of the image that blood was spilled. It is a much stronger statement than "mud."
(When) Robbie was on, "Good Morning America" it was a shorter version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." It seems to stop at "Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.." Apparently it was due to time constraints as variety shows tend to cut things short, for more chat time on the show. A little disappointing but a fine performance. I guess the mud or blood issue is still in question. I think though it's "mud."
Bones (posted after the one below)
If anyone wants further confirmation on the "Dixie" lyrics, go to the Rock Hall of Fame. When it first opened in Sept. 1995, there was a nice Band display on the third floor which contained Robbie's handwritten lyrics to the song.
But the last one, from a friend of Levon, closes it:
Mud is the answer. I asked Levon yesterday.
- Radio interview. 'In The Studio' 1988. Robbie repeats the 'The South Will Rise Again' anecdote in the 'Classic Albums' video, this time crediting the comment to Levon's dad rather than 'these old men' and prefacing it with "Hey Robbie …" This ignores the fact that you've been able to buy belt buckles and T-shirts with the same motto on them for years.
- Ralph Gleason, original review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) October 1969.
- Mick Gold, Let It Rock, April 1974
- Ed Ward, "The Band" in "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll", 1981 ed.
- Quoted in Robert Palmer "A Portrait of The Band As Young Hawks", Rolling Stone, 1 June 1978.
- I had two queries on this from the original article, so let's cover it here.
- A history of Jazz informs me that there was a plethora of military brass instruments after the Civil War, especially cornets, and that these found their way to New Orleans in sufficient numbers to create Dixieland jazz.
- David Powell, guestbook on The Band website. 11 October 1999. David cites an article, by Chris Hartley about Stoneman, entitled "War's Last Cavalry Raid", which was published in the May 1998 edition of the magazine "America's Civil War"
- Guestbook on the Band website, 23 December 1998
- Guestbook on the Band website, 23 December 1998
- Bruce Catton, "Total Warfare" in 'The Penguin Book of The American Civil War' 1960, 1966
- The lyric sheet on The Band's Internet site has 'By May the 10th Richmond had fell'. The appallingly inaccurate Japanese transcription on 'Best of The Band' has 'I made attempt.' I used to hear - 'A main attempt - Richmond - it fell'. May 10th was a good month too late for the fall of Richmond.
- The Taplin quote shows the song was recorded in May … no, that's being silly. If he'd just finished college it would be late May. The alternate take is dated 3rd June.
- Band Guestbook, 26 May 2000
- Band Guestbook, 26 May 2000
- Band Guestbook, 26 May 2000
- Band Guestbook, 26 May 2000
- Sleevenotes to "Anthology 1" by Robert Palmer, 1978
- Clement Eaton, 'The Freedom of Thought Struiggle in the Old South' (Duke University, 1940, 1964)
- Levon Helm & Stephen Davies, 'This Wheel's On Fire' (1993) p 188
- "Bones", on The Band web site, 29 April 1998
- Guestbook to the Band website, 23 December 1998
- Trees were the bane of the farmer's life. There's a memorable scene in the novel "Shane" where they labour over a tree root. There's a short film at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto (after Robbie's time there of course) about the amount of tree clearing and root grubbing they had to do.
- Band website, 6 June 2000
- On the Band website, 5 June 2000
- On the Band website, 5 June 2000
- On the Band web site 31 May 2000
- Art Dudley "Across the Great Divide and Back again" "The Listener" magazine, Spring 1995
- Chet Flippo, liner notes to the 'Across The Great divide" box set.
- The Band performed Randy Newman's song about Huey Long, 'Kingfish' in 1990s concerts.
- But, I hasten to add, are used on all the American ESL tapes I've been involved with. Initially publishers gave reason after reason why they shouldn't be used. They rightly insisted on using some African-American actors in the studio, but also insisted they should sound exactly like white actors.
- Yes, it's "Growth of The American Republic" Volume 1.
- Try looking up General Stoneman and the Richmond and Danville RR in any SHORT history of the Civil War. It ain't there!
- At least according to Paul Hardcastle's 1985 hit song "19" which quotes it as a statistic.
- Greil Marcus, 'Mystery Train.'
- StephenCrane 'The Red Badge of Courage' 1895.
- Guenevere, Band guestbook, 4 June 2000
- Band Guestbook, 5 June 2000
- Band Guestbook, 4 June 2000
- John Simon interview, "The Truth The Whole Truth & Nothing But the Truth" by Lee Gabites. Interview on this website.
- From the 'Classic Albums: The Band' video, 1997.
- Barney Hoskyns "Across The Great Divide"
- Barney Hoskyns "Across The Great Divide"
- Rob Bowman, sleevenotes to "To Kingdom Come", 1989
- Levon Helm & Stephen Davies 'This Wheel's On Fire' See also tuition video, 'Levon Helm on Drums and Drumming'
- Levon Helm & Stephen Davies "This Wheel's On Fire"
- Greil Marcus, "Mystery Train" 4th edition
- Levon Helm & Stephen Davies "This Wheel's On Fire"
- On both From the Band to the RR and Hall of Fame and Robbie Robertson: Going home
- Quote supplied by "Bones", on The Band web site, 29 April 1998
- All from the Band web site 31 May -5 June 2000
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