The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down



The title of this article refers to a famous song by “the Band.” Why mention it here on JonahWorld? Because I recently watched a video of  The Last Waltz,” a documentary film by Martin Scorsese, which documents the last performance of this group. The song in question was sung with great force by Levon Helm, the drummer, and made an impression on me.


By the way, all you would ever want to know about this song is on Peter Viney’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (revisited)” website.


In fall, 1972, I was taking a required U.S. History class in high school; it was taught by a teacher named “Pete” Petersen, who had a great interest in the Civil War. He made a habit of traveling to Civil War battlefields and taking slide photos, which he showed to us in class. His interest in the subject was infectious, and the next semester I enrolled in his Civil War class - which started me off on a long cycle of reading Civil War-related books, enlisting in the Marine Corps, and, ten years later, becoming a reenactor. The main reason I live in the East, in fact, is due to the early influence that Pete’s interest in the Civil War exerted on me.


My favorite type of music is classical, but I have listened to a lot of rock and pop over the years. I am embarrassed to relate that, when I was taking Pete’s class, I used to think that Don McLean’s song “American Pie” had something to do with the Civil War. (Yes, yes, I know, the line “…drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry” strongly suggests a time other than the mid 19th century.) I guess I was so heavily involved in the subject that I viewed everything else with it in mind.


Anyway, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is a well-known song by the Band that is certainly about the Civil War - in first person, no less. I have read that “…it’s not about the Confederacy, it’s from the Confederacy.” Well, maybe. To me it’s more a song about abject defeat as a theme with Confederate trappings than it is like any of the music from the Civil War. - Jonah Begone



The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

by J.R.Robertson. Album: The Band
© 1970 Canaan Music, Inc.


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 the tenth, Richmond had fell, it's a time I remember, oh so well,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singin'.  They went   
La,  La, La, La, La, La,     La, La, La, La, La, La,    La, La,
Back with my wife in Tennessee, When one day she called to me,
"Virgil, quick, come 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.     (Chorus)
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
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,
I swear by the mud below my feet, 
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat.    (Chorus and fade) 

From “The Civil War in Popular Culture – A Reusable Past” by Jim Cullen:

It was not only the 1960s - or those in the counterculture - that were being included. The Band was reaching beyond the moment to connect with an older, broader, more mythic nation. One sign of this was "King Harvest (Will Surely Come)," the album's closing track, sung from the point of view of a desperately hopeful farmer who will turn to factory work-and a union-if his crop fails. However, the most explicit effort to connect with this past was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was written by Robertson but sung by Helm, whose mournful vocals merge with his intentionally slapdash drumming and a lumbering piano line to give the song its distinctive charac­ter. The lyrics are written with a clarity of the kind one might find in a short story: A former Confederate named Virgil Kane explains that in the winter of 1865, he was fruitlessly trying to protect rail lines from Union cavalry attacks. In the barren aftermath of the war, he remembers the pervasive despair of Richmond's surrender that spring. This sense of loss stays with him as he chops wood in his reduced circumstances. But it is his emotional impoverish­ment that bothers him most, as he explains in the final verse:

Like my father before me, I'm a working man And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand He was just eighteen, proud and brave 'Till a Yankee laid him in his grave I swear by the mud below my feet You can't raise a Kane back up when he's in defeat The night they drove old Dixie down.

This is the Southerner's Civil War rendered in the tragic mode. We are given the story of a man caught up in a struggle not of his own making, for which he and his family pay a terrible price. The outside world rarely impinges: There is no mention of slavery (it is unlikely this man could afford any slaves) or secession (nothing indicates that he cared much for anything but defending his home), only a passing glimpse of Robert E. Lee, that archetypal fallen leader who endures humiliation with grace. Instead, we hear a painful recollection - which is not altogether accurate because Richmond fell in April, not May as Kane asserts, though that hardly matters - and are asked to contemplate the costs of war.

The appeal of a song such as this can be suggested not only by the fact that Joan Baez was able to make a huge hit of it in 1971, but also in the analysis of Greil Marcus, in his essay on The Band in Mystery Train:

"It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's [he is referring to Vietnam), could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can't get out from under the singer's truth-not the whole truth, simply his truth-and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one."

Marcus's analysis is fine as far as it goes, though it seems unlikely that all Northerners will be as moved as he is. However, he - like The Band - makes this argument by evading politics. In effect, both Marcus and The Band suggest that we suspend all our skepticism about the Confederate cause as irrelevant and that we immerse ourselves in the human drama of Virgil Kane. Whether or not they actually intended to make a current political argument, one could use their logic to argue that we should suspend our skepticism about the innocent GIs who went to fight in Vietnam, only to find horrors beyond their imaginations. In both cases the stories of other victims - slaves, the Vietnamese - are at best conflated with the characters in question and at worst are ignored altogether. The attempt to understand a Virgil Kane will presumably yield compassion, if not approval, and unite us in a common tragedy, however we may feel about the wars we fight.

If this rhetorical approach sounds familiar to the student of the Southern past, that is because it has a century-long history. One can find it in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," a series of articles published in The Century, a genteel late nineteenth-century magazine that stressed "contemplation of sacrifice, resourcefulness, and bravery in foes." The strategy is also apparent in the efforts of New South prophets such as L. Q. C. Lamar and J. L. M. Curry to promote sectional reconciliation. Putting the past in a new kind of order was more than a matter of noble sentiment; emphasizing unity was useful for newly capitalistic Southerners for everything from the negotiation of loans from Yankee banks to crowd control at Confederate memorial cele­brations. In any case, avoiding discussion of slavery or secession did not imply a rejection of old assumptions. Far from it.

Ironically, a sober contemplation of Southern defeat shaded, almost imperceptibly, into a celebration that did little to examine the underlying causes of that defeat by anything other than overwhelming numbers. Despite all this-or because of it-a lingering de­fensiveness on the part of many white Southerners remained well into the twentieth century.

There is nothing very celebratory, or defensive, about "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Still, viewed from this angle, the song draws on an old tradition. The ease and clarity with which The Band (probably uncon­sciously) evoked a mythic past suggests how attuned it was with the Southern past and how well the group was able to provide a reassuring rendering of it at a time - the late 1960s - when the present was becoming a bit much to take even for those who were theoretically committed to change.

Indeed, there are ways of interpreting "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" that have less to do with Southern politics than with a wider sense of cultural enervation. As I have already suggested, the song could be read as a parable of Vietnam, providing a kind of melancholy nostalgia that could soothe those enmeshed in a frustrating war. More generally, the song could speak to a larger sense of defeat for the left, a feeling of disappointment of early promise that had gone unfulfilled. That Joan Baez - widely seen as a voice for liberalism at the advent of the 1960s - made a hit of the song in the early 1970s suggests that many people could identify with its tone if not its actual content. What all these ways of reading the song share, however, is a retreat from public struggle into private loss-a retreat, ironically, that then becomes a kind of collective lament of victimization. This strategy is central to the Vietnam movies discussed in the chapter that follows.

Perhaps one should not be too hard on those who sought solace in contem­plating personal costs (which became a mania in the singer-songwriter era of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and others in the early 1970s).

As the twentieth-century French communist Regis Debray - a man of de­cidedly different sentiments than the Southern rebels of the 1860s - put it after Che Guevara's failed coup attempt in Bolivia a century after the Civil War: "It is not individuals who are placed face to face in these battles, but class interests and ideas; but those who die are persons, are men. We cannot avoid this contradiction, escape from this pain."

It may be that the impulses behind songs such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" are best understood not as faulty solutions to the lingering problems of the past but as complexities that resist easy resolution. The attempt to make sense of people like Virgil Kane falls in the province of culture - history, literature, popular music - which, in facing an insurmoun­tably difficult task, is constantly forced to rewrite the past. At different times, and in different ways, some of these rewrites will be better than others. Much better.