Is the Band’s classic song really a requiem for the Lost Cause?
By JACK HAMILTONAUG 13, 20204:24 PM
Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published an interview with singer-songwriter Early James in which James spoke of his decision to change the lyrics to the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” while performing the song at a recent Last Waltz–themed tribute concert in Nashville, Tennessee. He had rewritten the text to be a celebration of the Confederacy’s fall and an excoriation of the Lost Cause mythology that’s stubbornly refused to die in the 155 years since the war’s end. Recalling his Alabama childhood, James says, “People take that song as their anthem. When people had songs as their ringtone, I remember that being one.” As someone who has lived in the South since 2014, I too can attest to this, a curious position for a song written by a Canadian in the late 1960s. (James himself wryly remarks that if the Alabamians of his youth had known of Robbie Robertson’s nationality, “they would’ve hated it!”)
I have found myself thinking quite a bit about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” lately, probably the most troublesome piece of music in the catalogue of the Band, who are one of my favorite artists. Any experience of art is by definition subjective, which is one of the reasons that discussing troublesome art is often so tricky; everyone’s mileage will vary. By “troublesome” art I don’t mean things like Triumph of the Will or The Birth of a Nation, worksthat are so odious that if you’re unbothered by them, there is something wrong with you. I mean things like Lolitaor Heart of Darknessor The Searchers that provoke a spectrum of responses. I have heard thoughtful people express great (if usually qualified) admiration for these works, and I’ve heard other thoughtful people emphatically say that they’d rather spend their time elsewhere, and I think all of these reactions can be right.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is not my favorite Band song by any stretch, but with the exception of “The Weight,” it’s probably their most well-known composition, partly due to Joan Baez’s hit cover of the song, which reached No. 3 on the charts in 1971. (The original recording appeared on the Band’s self-titled second album, released in September 1969.) It’s also one of their most acclaimed works, making lists of history’s greatest songs as compiled by everyone from Rolling Stone and Time to Pitchfork. The song is set sometime in the late 19th century and tells the story of a Southern man looking back on the fall of the Confederacy, and it’s come to resonate among a certain good-old-boy set as a musical emblem of regional chauvinism and neo-Confederate nostalgia, as James’ recollection suggests. I happen to think this is a mishearing of the song (more on that in a bit), but the meaning of music never entirely belongs to the music itself, and for that reason I understand the position of those who’d prefer to relegate it to the dustbin. Back in 2009, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a brief essay on his own response to the song that still sticks with me: “Another story about the blues of Pharaoh,” wrote Coates, caustically and not incorrectly.
I’m not going to defend “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” in part because I don’t want to, but also because I think that treating massively popular art as something that needs “defending” is usually a reactionary stance, motivated by the belief that other people’s experiences of art are less valid than one’s own. Robbie Robertson is not in peril. There are nice things one can say about the song: I could mount a purely technical-formalist endorsement, for instance, highlighting Levon Helm’s gorgeous vocal performance, the inventive use of voice-leading in Robertson’s composition, the recording’s masterful, midtempo rhythmic pocket. On the less nice side, I could point out that as a piece of writing, it’s always struck me as wildly overrated. Its grasp of history is Wikipedia-deep and full of the sort of cloying specificity that’s a hallmark of third-rate historical fiction. “Virgil, quick come see/ There goes Robert E. Lee”—what a howlingly awful line.
It’s the lyrics, of course, which also present the trouble, although here I would argue that those who croon along to the song as Southern nostalgia are fundamentally misunderstanding it. One of the oldest pop music fallacies in the book is the belief that songs are actually about the people who sing them, and that the perspectives expressed in songs are shared by the people who write them. Most pop songwriting is deeply figurative and symbolic, and within this exists a subtradition of “character” songs. Take Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” or “Stan” by Eminem, both songs told from the point of view of murderous psychopaths. They are both chilling in their way, but most people don’t find them categorically offensive, because we understand they are fictions.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a character song through and through, and we know this from its opening line: “Virgil Caine is the name.” (I’ve always found that name to be eye-rollingly pretentious on Robertson’s part, but it does seem notable that his Southern narrator shares a name with the Bible’s first murderer.) It’s about the devastation of war as experienced from the losing side, but, with the possible exception of the line “They should never have taken the very best” (an ambiguous they that could refer to either the Confederate war machine or the Union army), which prompts some audible applause in The Last Waltz, there’s not much in the song that rings as an explicit endorsement of the Confederacy. In fact, the song’s chorus refers to “bells ringing” and “people singing” and is notably major-key, almost triumphant. (This is one of the reasons James’ rewrite of the song’s refrain, “Tonight we drive old Dixie down,” works as well as it does.)
A byproduct of the lyrics’ belabored historical frame is that it obscures the song’s origin, in a time the United States was mired in another war. I hear “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as an anti-war song first and foremost, and one that is definitively rooted in the Vietnam era. By 1969, the war in Vietnam was deeply unpopular and an obvious disaster of U.S. foreign policy. The Tet Offensive of the previous year had made it abundantly clear that the United States was losing the war, and less than two months after its release, the details of the My Lai Massacre would be made public by journalist Seymour Hersh.
So why write an anti-war song in the middle of the Vietnam War told from the perspective of a Tennessean in 1865? Only Robbie Robertson can say for sure, and these days he’s mostly evasive on the subject. But in an essay written at the dawn of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, historian C. Vann Woodward observed that the American South was unique in being the only part of the United States to have experienced military defeat, and thus might be uniquely suited to offer caution to the bellicose triumphalism that was coming to define U.S. Cold War policy. As scholar Keri Leigh Merritt has chronicled, white poverty was endemic to the antebellum South, and many of the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy were defending a system that was perpetuating their own economic subjugation, killing and dying for what W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as the “psychological wage” of white supremacy. (The Civil War was often described by those who fought in it as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”)
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I am doubtful that Robertson had read either Woodward or Du Bois—if he had, he’d be a better writer!—but I do think that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song that attempts to grapple with the experience of war for those who are asked to give themselves up as collateral damage for the powerful, a central concern of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement. To my ears, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has more in common with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or Stevie Wonder’s “Front Line”—two explicitly class-based critiques of the Vietnam War—than it does with “Dixie” or “My Old Kentucky Home” or Gone With the Windor any number of countless other American fictions that glamorize Southern slavery. I don’t believe the song was intended to be anyone’s “anthem,” and people who embrace it as such are doing something much worse than missing the point. But songs don’t get to choose to whom they mean what, and I certainly don’t fault anyone who’d rather never hear this one again.