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The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997, 1998
This article first appeared in The Band fanzine Jawbone, issue 5, winter 1997.

Robbie Robertson
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.’

Levon Helm
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 for the lyrics and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.

Ralph Gleason
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.

Mick Gold
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.

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 Kane, a Confederate ex-soldier who served on the Danville supply train until General Stoneman’s Union troops tore up the tracks [5] . 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.

Bruce Catton
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.

Total war. 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 it fell [7] ). That was the end for Dixie. The surrender was signed by Lee seven days later, but April 2nd was ‘the night’.

Virgil returns home to Tennessee, - his wife calls him to see Robert E. Lee passing by.
(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.

Clement Eaton
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.

As a footnote, 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. To be fair to Baez, on some live versions Levon gets pretty close to doing the same. Even as early as Rock of Ages it sounds like: There goes -er Robert E. Lee. 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. [9]

Virgil don’t mind chopping wood and don’t mind if the money’s no good, after all You take what you can and you leave the rest but they should never have taken the very best … So, he’s a sharecropper. Maybe the grandfather of the farmer later on in King Harvest.

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 blood below my feet
You can’t raise a Kane back up when he’s in defeat …

Note the careful juxtaposition of words - Virgil Kane … a Kane … raise a Kane … raising Caine … Ain’t no more cane being raised … [10]
The choice of names is perfect too for a story about the Civil War, which was described as ‘The War Between Brothers.’ Caine and Abel.

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 Evans, corrupt politicians like Huey Long [11] 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 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. 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, where they made Maximilian a puppet Emperor of Mexico. He got shot. A positive image of the South was considerably less surprising in Britain and France, and as a result in Canada, too.

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 [12] , 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’. Robbie knew that 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 and Kentucky were wavering between the Confederacy and the Union in 1861. 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. Helm has clearly 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.

Greil Marcus
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’. 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. [14]

It’s easy to forget how musically subtle the songs on The Band are.

Robbie Robertson
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.

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down became as an essential concert number as The Weight. 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. Levon also developed his drum sound.

Levon Helm
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.

But you don’t get concert versions nowadays. 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. 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. Robbie Robertson does a breathy solo piano version on the VH-1 Classic albums programme too. Robbie is sensitive to the charge, denying that he was writing it directly "at" Levon, but nevertheless it doesn’t get done on stage. 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 don’t do it "because it’s hard to sing". [17]

Peter Viney

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. Any remaining inaccuracies are entirely my fault! As Pat rightly says, 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.


  1. 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.’ This ignores the fact that you’ve been able to buy belt buckles and T-shirts with the same motto on them for years.
  2. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’
  3. Ralph Gleason, original review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) October 1969. Also quoted in sleeve notes to ‘Across The Great Divide’ box set
  4. Mick Gold, Let It Rock, April 1974
  5. 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.
  6. Bruce Catton, "Total Warfare" in ‘The Penguin Book of The American Civil War’ 1960, 1966
  7. 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 always heard - ‘A main attempt - Richmond - it fell’. May 10th was a good month too late for the fall of Richmond, though gets a majority aural vote. And ‘Richmond - it fell’ is more grammatical than ‘had fell.’ On the VH1 Classic Albums programme Robbie sings it solo, and it’s more like ‘By May tenth Richmond it fell’
  8. Clement Eaton, ‘The Freedom of Thought Struiggle in the Old South’ (Duke University, 1940, 1964)
  9. "Bones", on The Band web site, 29 April 1998
  10. I’m following Greil Marcus’s spelling of ‘Kane’ though it has been transcribed as Caine and Cane by other reviewers.
  11. The Band performed Randy Newman’s song about Huey Long, ‘Kingfish’ in 1990s concerts.
  12. Try looking up General Stoneman and the Richmond and Danville RR in any SHORT history of the Civil War. It ain’t there!
  13. Greil Marcus, ‘Mystery Train.’
  14. StephenCrane ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ 1895
  15. From the ‘Classic Albums: The Band’ video, 1997.
  16. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’. See also tuition video, ‘Levon Helm on Drums and Drumming’
  17. Quote supplied by "Bones", on The Band web site, 29 April 1998

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