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Robbie's Classic And The "D" Word

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Robbie Robertson - Does his classic need redemption?

First it was the singers. Now it is the songs. In these politically-charged days, anything containing the “D” word is dynamite – to be handled with extreme care.

The Dixie Chicks set the ball rolling, by ditching Dixie in their name. Now the target is a song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” one of the finest compositions in the history of popular music. It was written by Canadian Robbie Robertson and first recorded by his group The Band.

The song tells of the anguish of a fictional poor white farmer named Virgil Caine during the last year of the American Civil War when General George Stoneman led a Union cavalry raid on Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an iconic Americana song - indeed many would say a remarkable one - and rightfully sits in various Best of All Time song lists. It was included in The Band’s self-titled second album and Joan Baez was to later make it a hit single. Other big names with cover versions include Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Denver, the Black Crowes and the Jerry Garcia Band.

Dixie is the historic nickname for the Confederate States of America, who fought the Northern States loyal to the Union in the Civil War (1861-65), mainly to protect a Southern society of which slavery was an integral part.

The song’s opening stanza is a lyrical gem which perfectly introduces the listener to an historic setting in Danville, Virginia in 1865 when Stoneman went behind Confederate lines to attack the rail infrastructure:

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

Till 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

Does this matter-of-fact interpretation of history sound like “troubling requiem for the Confederate cause” and “a vehicle for a harmful, racist American myth?” Well according to Rolling Stone writer Simon Vozick-Levinson it does.

The Rolling Stone article was prompted by a virtual concert hosted by Easy Eye Sound artist Marcus King on Monday August 3. It was billed as Marcus King’s Last Waltz, yet another tribute show to mark the anniversary of the movie The Last Waltz which features the final concert of The Band. And during the streamed event, a 26-year-old Alabama singer-songwriter named Early James performed a version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

And while Stoneman may have torn up the railroad tracks, Early James rips up this musical track by changing the lyrics to cast aspersion on the Confederate cause. “I hope we piss off the right people by changing these words,” James drawled as he launched into his altered version with the backing of the Marcus King band.

The first major change came in that opening verse, where It’s a time I remember oh so well becomes a time to bid farewell. And in the chorus, The night they drove old Dixie down changes to Tonight we drive old Dixie Down. But it is the mournful final verse which Early James tears apart.

Robbie wrote:

Like my father before me, I'm a working man

And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand

Well, he was just eighteen, proud and brave

But a Yankee laid him in his grave

I swear by the blood below my feet

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

Early James declared:

Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand

Unlike the others below me, who took a rebel stand

Depraved and powered to enslave

I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave

I swear by the mud below my feet

That monument won’t stand, no matter how much concrete

Early James justified the changes by telling Rolling Stone: “The lines that made me cringe, I had to change those,” he says. “I’m from the South. I grew up with racist family members. The song just kind of wrote itself.”

The Black Lives Matter movement will no doubt applaud his efforts, as did Rolling Stone’s Vozick-Levinson. But many music critics have been more guarded.

Under the headline: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down Needs No Redemption”, Saving Country Music wisely reflected on both the Rolling Stone story and the Early James changes:

“It’s also understandable why some might find “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as problematic or offensive. It does mention “Dixie” in the title. It does reference Robert E. Lee, which some may find polarizing regardless of the context. But it is at least worth presenting the song within a proper context instead of assuming and assigning racist intent to it, and not allowing for any discourse on the matter by leaving out critical counterpoints.”

To further provide some balance to the argument, the website then trawled through social media commentary by Rolling Stone’s readers - the common thread reflected in three pertinent comments:

Personally I never thought of this song as confederate “anthem” and I don’t think changing the name will have any impact of the modern day civil rights movement. I always thought of this song as a ballad. Nothing more. It’s not the Confederate Flag.

Mixed feelings about this. Seems appropriate for our times, yet there’s also something dangerous about bowdlerizing art.

The weird part about all of this is that the song is not necessarily hagiographic towards the confederacy. In fact, the verse that got the most change was the one where the speaker mourns his brother’s death. Southerners have no feelings, no contradictions, just mindless bigots?

More importantly, what does the man himself think. So far the most recent reflection writer Robbie Robertson had on his masterpiece was in an interview with SiriusXM host John Fugelsang recorded in October last year. This was of course before the George Floyd death occurred and the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, so Fugelsang’s question to Robbie proved somewhat prophetic.

Fugelsang: “ With art and other symbols that tend to glorify the Confederacy, and so when I hear “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” now, I feel myself asking myself where that fits into the discussion. And I am curious to know what your thoughts are about that ?”

Robertson: “Interesting question … when I went from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta, it was bam! I didn’t understand the depths of this. I didn’t understand that you would go to the rest room and one door said ‘coloured’ and one door said ‘white’, I thought I’d kinda heard about that. But drinking fountains. What! It was crazy!

But for me, a lot of the people playing my favourite music were African Americans and I just adored what they can do and I adored them.”

He then recounted that during the visit south, fellow-group member Levon Helm – the only American in The Band – took Robbie to meet his parents who lived in Arkansas. Levon’s father captivated him with stories of the South and the changes brought about there by the Civil War: “And he said to me, he said Robin (he called me Robin), he said Robin ‘the South is going to rise again.’ I got chills through me.”

He continued: “Years later I’m sitting down at the piano, I’m sitting down at the piano writing a song, and something creeped out of me, and it was a story And I was writing a movie again. I was writing a movie about a Southern family that lost in The Civil War, and from their side, but the story of that family. And I was trying to write a song that I thought Levon could sing better than anybody in the world. And that’s all it was. That’s what it meant to me—-this little movie, a perfect thing for him.”

He explained: “ I thought nobody’s doing this. Nobody is entering this area of music. And I wasn’t thinking about it just to be different. I was thinking about our own thing. We just do our own thing.”

Whether he will now discuss the issue in greater detail, remains to be seen.

Of course, Early James was not the first musician to change the words of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

In 1971 Joan Baez released her version of the song. And it went Gold, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and Billboard ranked it as the #20 song for the year. But the opening verse was subtly different to what Robertson penned (changes underlined):

Virgil Caine is my name, and I drove on the Danville train

Till so much cavalry came and tore up the tracks again

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

I took the train to Richmond that fell, it’s a time I remember oh so well

Baez would later tell Rolling Stone she had never seen printed lyrics of the song and the lines were recorded as she had (mis)heard them while listening to The Band album. She has since performed the song as originally written.

Indeed the track is tinged in more controversy.

Levon Helm’s accented lead vocals help give the song true distinction and indeed that classic quality. But though The Band’s drummer would go on to have his own spectacular solo career, he seldom, if ever, performed “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Friends say Helm, who died in 2012, disliked the Baez version and how her changes to the lyrics had distorted the original meaning.

However, for many in the music industry, Helm’s reluctance to perform the song stems from the long-running controversy over Robbie Robertson’s sole credit as song-writer, not only for this number but several of The Band’s songs. There was certainly no love lost between the pair.

While Helm’s father may have been the inspiration for the song, it is widely accepted that Levon helped Robertson research the subject. In his excellent 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Helm wrote, "Robbie and I worked on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect."

The only other inference is whether his reluctance to perform the song had anything to do with the subject. This seems unlikely given his participation in the original project.

Sadly one can only speculate what Helm might have made of the contrived fuss. The irony is that the key participants – Robertson, Helm and Baez – were, and are, well regarded as progressive liberals and in no way associated with the Confederate cause.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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