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 Band front cover

The song is a result of Robbie Robertson’s research of the American Civil War. Levon Helm recalls: “Robbie and I worked on the song 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. It was another of those workshop songs we worked on a long time before we got it down. Robertson’s take on the events that ripped the nation apart are not siding with any of the parties but rather describe the sentiment and human suffering of a confederate soldier at the end of and shortly after the war.

The Band 1969

Helm on that productive period of the Band’s songwriting: “This was 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, and the pulse would be easier to move to, more danceable. And it made it easier for us to learn to really sing with one another and behind Richard.  My problem was that I had to learn to sing and play in half-time meter at the same time.”

The Band 1969a

Robbie Robertson’s recollection sheds more light on the writing of the song: “There was a chord progression and a melody rumbling through my head, but I did not know yet what the song was about. I played it on the piano one day for Levon. He liked the way it stopped and started, free of tempo. I flashed back to when he first took me to meet his parents in Marvell, Arkansas, and his daddy said ‘Don’t worry, Robin – the South is going to rise again.’ I told Levon I wanted to write lyrics about the Civil War from a southern family’s point of view. ‘Don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in the lyrics’ was his only advice, ‘That won’t go down too well.’ I asked him to drive me to the Woodstock library so I could do a little research on the Confederacy. They didn’t teach that stuff in Canadian Schools. When I conjured up the story about Virgil Caine and his kin against this historical backdrop, the song came to life for me. Though I did stop and wonder, can I get away with this? You call this rock ‘n’ roll? Maybe!

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down single cover

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.

Atlantic and Danville RR

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.

richmond-burned_district_from_the_canal-1965
Ruined Richmond 1965

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.

Robert-E-Lee Steamboat
The Robert E. Lee steamboat

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 the dance floor and The Band appeared on stage.

The Last Waltz back

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 Last Waltz original poster

The version of the song as performed at The Last Waltz is one for the ages. Robertson recalls it vividly: “Right from the horns’ new free-time intro reminiscent of ‘I wish I was in Dixie’, I felt we were ready to taker flight. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Levon sing and play ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ better than on this night. Looking back at him while he was singing a verse, I saw the horns behind him looking like some kind of glorious funeral procession. His truth in that vocal could tear your heart out, and when we hit the final chorus the roar of the crowd felt like it helped us lift the stage a foot higher. It took me back to when I first wrote the song, wanting to come up with something that Levon could sing better than anyone in the world.”

The Last Walt Levon Helm

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.

Recommended reading:

This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band

Testimony: Robbie Robertson

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this:


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

Categories: Songs

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19 replies »

  1. A Canadian needs to study both sides of the civil war before siding with an emotionally distraught South. If Robbie Robertson had read more about the horrors of negro slave life, he might have decided to leave this topic alone. Obviously the death on both sides was a catastrophe but remember what it was based on: freedom for every human being or a wealthy economy based on the enslavement and inhuman, anti-Christian subjugation of human beings of another race and color. There is no beauty in this song for me, only sadness at the never ending hatred people can have for their fellow human beings. The spirit of the Civil War continues and the issues remain unresolved. Too many non- blacks still would like to revert to antebellum times. Too many blacks will never be able to forgive what was done to them.

    • Slavery was not an issue in the war until 1863. And only then, so that Lincoln could rally his side. After all, not too many Americans were in favor of killing each other. And virtually all the slave trading was organized in New England, via their shipping industry. Only about 15% of Southerners owned slaves and that surely would not have included Virgil Caine. He fought because he was being attacked. The slaves were sold off by their own people. Slavery was legal in the North until the late 1700s. Learn some history.

    • He stated they did the song based on the perspective of a Southern family. Obviously, this family would not have owned slaves. I love the song. Slavery was detestable and as a southerner, I abhor that part of my heritage. However, that doesn’t negate the struggles that families went through over a war they should have never started.

      • Tammy, I grew up in Georgia in an area Sherman’s army went through on their way to the sea. His army took everything they wanted and destroyed what they didn’t take.

        I had a lot of negative feelings about yankees growing up, but as I got older & hopefully wiser, I realized that regardless of what Southern said about slavery not being a cause of the Civil War. I seriously doubt there would have been one if slavery didn’t exist.

        But the bottom line is that the horrible situation of slavery did exist before the war and no longer existed after the war.

        I understand there were other causes of the war, but the South left the Union because they were afraid Lincoln would free the slaves.

        And one can argue that the Union should have let the South leave. But if they had, who knows what type of government the South would have had – probably not a democratic republic. Eventually the slaves probably would have revolted, and there would have been horrific violence on both sides.

        Yes Tammy I agree with you the right side won. Even though when at Gettysburg, I realized I probably would have fought on the wrong side to defend my home – which is what I think Lee did. He would not fight against Virginia even though apparently offered command of the Union Army.

        One final thing, With all it flaws, I think the United States is the greatest nation ever and is the reason that Nazi Germany, the Communist Soviet Union or some other dictatorship does not, have not & will not dominated the world.

        I believe this so strongly – I spent 26 years in the Air Force – retiring as a Lt. Col.

  2. A Canadian needs to study the slave trade to understand that the British were one of the most prominent people’s involved in the African Atlantic slave trade. All of the British colonies inherited their legacy. Slave trade was legal under British rule until 1833; possessions of the East Indian Co were exempted from that. That being said, the British government has had a history of “foreign oppression” of native people well into the modern era. Before being too critical of how other countries have worked through their social progression, take a look at who’s picture is on the Canadian money.

  3. How does this song “side” with the South and isn’t the guy singing it from Arkansas? Just because it tells the story of a man in the south who worked on the railroad and probably never owned a slave that lost a brother in the Civil war. It’s not like he calls it the “War of Northern Aggression” and bitches about losing his slaves. The only side he takes is the war sucks side.

  4. I have never heard or seen a performance to equal this one. It years my heart out every time I watch the video. Robbie Robinson, the song writer, and Levon Helm, who sang it, are immortalized. It is about all loss through war, not a particular one. We should consider ourselves so very fortunate that The Band has made it ours.

  5. There are a few mistakes in the lyrics that you print.

    Virgil’s wife did not refer ‘the Robert E. Lee’ steamship, but rather to General Robert E. Lee (Levon sings ‘there goes Robert E. Lee’). The third verse starts “Like my father before me, I’m a working man”.

    I think the problem is that Levon changed the lyrics from the original version. Peter Viney has an article about the various changes in The Band’s lyrics at http://theband.hiof.no.

    • Hello No’am, thank you for your feedback. You may be right about The Robert E. Lee, as it is difficult to get the accurate lyrics from hearing the song, although it sounds as “there goes the Robert E. Lee” both on the original version from their second studio album and The Last Waltz. Also, if Robertson did his homework, he would have known that general E. Lee did not step foot in Tennessee after the Civil War. Plus It is much more likely for the wife to notice the steamboat on its regular sail on the Mississippi than the general himself. Also – the page you listed, which is a wonderful resource indeed, has the third verse as “Like my father before me, I will work the land”. http://theband.hiof.no/lyrics/night_they_drove_old_dixie_down.html

      • As it happens, on The Band’s webpage which I mentioned earlier there was recently posted a link (http://theband.hiof.no/tntdodd_vocalsep.mp3) to an mp3 file which has managed to extract the vocals without any accompaniment, making it very easy to hear the words clearly. It’s definitely “There goes Robert E. Lee” and my mistake regarding “I will work the land”.

  6. PS: I’m fairly sure that Virgil swears “on the blood below my feet” but it’s very difficult to tell as there’s a slight glitch on the word.

  7. I’m an Irish man and know very little about the American civil war but what i do know is this is one he’ll of a song,I think it’s the southern accent of Levon that adds to the lyrics of the song,I think songs about the south sound better when sent by people from the south,Galveston by Glen Campbell we’re goin to Jackson by Johnny cash copper head road by Steve Earle for me been totally nuteral I see the song as a story of a poor farmer who had no ideology on race or colour,he simply tells a story of how war affected him.I love the voices of southern singers Don Williams is probably my favourite,people should enjoy this brilliant song and dont dwell on its meaning,Levon nor Robbie were racist.

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