The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1997, 1998
This article first appeared in The Band fanzine Jawbone, issue 5, winter 1997.
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  . 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.
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  ). 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.
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.
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. 
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 -
Note the careful juxtaposition of words - Virgil Kane … a Kane … raise a Kane … raising Caine … Ain’t no more cane being raised …
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  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  , 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.
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’s easy to forget how musically subtle the songs on The Band are.
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.
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".
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.