The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a song written by Canadian musician Robbie Robertson, first recorded by The Band in 1969 and released on their self-titled second album.

Meaning of song

The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Confederate soldier Virgil Caine "serves on the Danville train," the main supply line into the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia is holding the line at the Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman's forces "tore up the track again". The siege lasted from June 1864 to April 1865, when both Petersburg and Richmond fell, and Lee's troops were starving at the end ("We were hungry / Just barely alive"). Virgil relates and mourns the loss of his brother: "He was just eighteen, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave."

Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners: "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."

Robertson claimed that he had the music to the song in his head but had no idea what it was to be about. "At some point [the concept] blurted out to me. Then I went and I did some research and I wrote the lyrics to the song." Robertson continued, "When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, 'Well don't worry, the South's gonna rise again.' At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, 'God, because I keep hearing this, there's pain here, there is a sadness here.' In Americana land, it's a kind of a beautiful sadness."

Contribution of Levon Helm

Adding further resonance is the vocal delivery of the song by Arkansas-bred Levon Helm, who also provides the loping, ragged beat that suits the song's defeated yet proud theme.

Context within the album and The Band's history

According to the liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band by Rob Bowman, the album, The Band, has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana.

Though never a major hit, "Dixie" was the centerpiece of The Band's self-titled second album, and, along with "The Weight" from Music From Big Pink, remain the songs most identified with the group.

The song is also featured on the 1974 Bob Dylan & The Band live album Before the Flood. It was #245 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Covers of song

The song has spawned a handful of cover versions, notably Joan Baez's top-10 version from 1971, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US, as well as spending five weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. A version of this song was also recorded by Richie Havens. Johnny Cash covered the song on his 1975 album John R. Cash. In addition, it was a live staple of Jerry Garcia's various solo configurations.

Of particular interest is the lyrics change made by Baez. She changed the words "there goes Robert E. Lee" to "there goes the Robert E. Lee." However, in the CD that is named The Best of Joan Baez, there is a live recording where she sings that lyric in its more traditional form, that is "there goes Robert E. Lee." Another change on Baez's version is apparently a result of her mis-hearing the second line "Till Stoneman's cavalry came". Baez sings "Till so much cavalry came". She also changed "may the tenth" to "i took the train". On the second verse, she changes "I don't mind chopping wood" to "I don't mind, I'm chopping wood". In addition, the line "like my father before me, I will work the land" was changed to "like my father before me, I'm a working man", changing the narrator from a farmer to a laborer. In the last vers she changed "the mud below my feet" to "the blood below my feet". Baez later told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder that she initially learned the song by listening to the recording on the Band's album, and had never seen the printed lyrics at the time she recorded it, and thus sang the lyrics as she'd (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson.

In 1972, a cover of the song called "Am Tag, als Conny Kramer starb" (which translates literally as "On the Day Conny Kramer Died", or "The Day when Conny Kramer Died" to fit the rhythm of the tune), was a number one hit in West Germany for singer Juliane Werding. For this version, the lyrics were not translated but rather changed completely to an anti-drug anthem about a young man dying because of his drug addiction - an extremely hot topic in that year, when heroin was making the first big inroads in Germany. In 1986 the German band Die Goldenen Zitronen made a parody version of this song with the title "Am Tag, als Thomas Anders starb" ("On the Day Thomas Anders Died").

Popular 70's band Top of the Poppers also recorded a cover for their Top of the Pops, Volume 20 album

Old-time musician Jimmy Arnold recorded the song on his album "Southern Soul," which was composed of songs associated with the Southern side of the Civil War. Steve Young recorded the song on his 1975 album Honky Tonk Man. Richie Havens performed the song on his Live at the Cellar Door album in 1990. Jerry Garcia played this tune from the Legion of Mary days with Merl Saunders until the 80's and early 90's when this was a staple song in his shows. The song also appears on the album Whose Garden Was This by John Denver, released in 1970. It was also included in his 2001 release, John Denver The Greatest Collection.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" has also been covered by The Black Crowes. Live versions can be found on a few of their 2005 & 2006 Instant Live recordings, and on their DVD/CD "Freak and Roll... Into the Fog". Jackie Greene performed the song as an encore several times on tour in 2006, later posting it online for fans. The Allman Brothers Band have also performed the song recently, including at Bonnaroo in 2005 and at the Beacon Theater in 2007. The Twilight Singers have performed excerpts from the song on the last leg of their 2006 tour. Michael Vermillion, a Seattle area musician, and former member of the band Vendetta Red, recorded a version, and often performs the song at his live shows. Bruce Hornsby, a friend of Robertson's, has also covered the song at many of his live shows. The Decemberists covered the song in the encore performance of their 7/22/07 concert at McMenamins Edgefield Manor. Duke Special covered the song, accompanied by Brian Houston during his concert on 8/22/07 at the Empire Music Hall, Belfast. City and Colour covered the song, with Attack in Black during a concert on 9/12/07 at the Music Hall, Toronto, as well as at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Scottish rock band Big Country also covered the song on their live album Eclectic.

Personnel on The Band version


External links

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