A Vehicle for a Harmful, Racist Myth?

by Pat Brennan

Posted at The Band web site, August 2020

Exactly what part of the song ["The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"] is a harmful myth?

1st verse: VC is a soldier assigned to protect the Richmond-Danville train line. He's starving. The war ends. He remembers it well.

Chorus: The war ends. Bells ring. Joy in the North. Despair in the South. People sing. Joy in the North. Despair in the South.

2nd verse: War is over. VC home in TN on his dirt farm. His wife thinks she sees Robert E. Lee. An aside: Lee never went to TN after the war. However people all over the South thought they saw him, a type of mass hysteria. VC bemoans that folks are taking more than they need in the impoverished South and hints that the "best" has been taken from him.

3rd verse: He's a farmer like his father. His 18 yo brother died in the war (the "best"). He swears he and his family can't be "raised up" from defeat.

This song literally strips all the bullshit away from discussions about the Civil War and deals directly with the crushing loss to the poor dirt farmers who got caught up in the terrible flood of history. It also very intelligently describes the duality of the end of the war. Exultant victory bells and joyous songs in the North, funereal bells and grief in the South. Not one word in this song promulgates a harmful myth.

What part is racist? Because he's southern? This makes no sense. Tens of thousands of racist Northern whites volunteered to destroy the Confederacy even though freeing slaves was the last thing on their minds. They fought to preserve the Union, and ending slavery wasn't an official war aim until early 1863, almost two years in. In the same way, tens of thousands of poor white farmers fought for the Confederacy to defend their home states from what they perceived to be an invasion.

The re-write by Early James is laughable. It's entirely about him and his racist father. Was VC "depraved and powered to enslave"? Did VC not "understand" his father? No to both. Early James' father was, however, so James distorts the song to place himself in VC's shoes for dramatic effect. Great. As long as he was violating history and art, why didn't James re-write the whole song while he was at it? I can help.

Master Caine is my name
and I whip my slaves with bark wood
I take the women every night
'cause brown sugar tastes so good

Ironic, right? Let's see if Early gets invited to a Rolling Stones tribute.

Robertson has been telling that exact same story about the origins of the song for decades, as has Jon Taplin. The writer of the article is absolutely full of shit to say that quote shows a "distancing." What tripe.

Finally, "an elegy for the Lost Cause." Sorry, the writer similarly has no idea what the "Lost Cause" is, and VC is certainly not the embodiment of it.

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