The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, by The Band

The late 60s saw a number of great artists looking back into the American past to find a new musical direction. Bob Dylan started the trend releasing John Wesley Harding, the album that produced All Along the Watchtower. The Byrds followed with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a classic of Americana, and the Band released Music from Big Pink, the record that influenced countless musicians. For me the song that best symbolizes that chapter in music history is The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down from their second album released in 1969, The Band.

The song is a result of Robbie Robertson’s research of the American Civil War. It describes the sentiment and human suffering of a confederate soldier at the end and shortly after the war.

A little historical background on the people and events listed in the song: In the last days of the Civil War in 1865, with the defeat of the confederate army at Petersburg, Virginia imminent, General Robert E. Lee advised confederate President Jefferson Davis to evacuate Richmond, the confederate’s capital. Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville, Virginia, while the Union Army led by Major General George Stoneman was trying to capture him. General George Stoneman’s Union Cavalry rip up the rails of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a main Confederate supply route, to prevent reinforcements reaching Robert E. Lee’s Army during the Siege of Petersburg. Robert E. Lee surrendered shortly after on April 9 at the Appomattox, and on May 10th Davis was captured by the Union Army and Richmond fell. The Robert E. Lee mentioned in the second verse of the song is a steamboat named after the general that was launched on the Mississippi river in 1866.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 The Band performed their celebrated farewell concert, an event that was later released as The Last Waltz 3-LP package and as a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. The Band completed a full circle with the Last Waltz, performing at Bill Graham’s 5,400 capacity dance hall, Winterland, where they performed  their debut live concert in April 1969. For the audience the event was not just a live concert, it started as a full Thanksgiving dinner for thousands of people. Bill Graham organized a meal that consisted of 200 turkeys, 300 pounds of salmon and 400 pounds of pumpkin pie, plus an orchestra playing waltzes and poets reciting their craft. Just before the show started, all the chairs disappeared from he dance floor and The Band appeared on stage.

I picked the version that the Band played at The Last Waltz. The show featured a group of musicians that reads like the who’s who of rock and folk. The page is too short to list all of them, and they included Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Dr. John and many more. The film is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the creative forces of folk and rock music up to that point. Robbie Robertson said of the event: “Over the years, many journalists and other have commented on what a pivotal point it was in music and in their lives when they saw The Last Waltz movie or heard the record. It was that fertile period in the 60s and 70s coming to a head. Ir was an end of an era. The spirit of those times turned a corner and never came back.”

The concert was made into one of the best movie concert documentaries ever produced. The version here shows how emotional the concert was for the band, as demonstrated by Robertson’s facial expressions and Levon Helm’s singing.

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,

Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.

In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive.

By May tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well,

 

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, when all the bells were ringing,

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na

 

Back with my wife in Tennessee, When one day she called to me,

Said “Virgil, quick, come and see, there goes the Robert E. Lee!”

Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good.

Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,

But they should never have taken the very best.

 

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, when all the bells were ringing,

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na

 

Like my father before me, I will work the land,

And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.

He was just eighteen, proud and brave, But a Yankee laid him in his grave,

And I swear by the mud below my feet,

You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

 

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, when all the bells were ringing,

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,

Na, Na, Na

 

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