Perhaps the signature song from the Band’s eponymous sophomore release, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” heralds a key moment in the development of Robbie Robertson’s skills as a writer.
This Civil War song doesn’t pick sides; instead, Levon Helm’s delicately poignant vocal completely animates the Robertson lyric — stripping bare the awful costs of these kind of conflicts. Virgil Kane, another version of the itinerant grower Helm would more fully explore in 2007’s Dirt Farmer, survived a battle to defend the Danville railway — a supply line to Tennessee — but can’t get past the things that were lost along the way: A brother, a sense of purpose, maybe his whole world.
In this way, no matter where your family stood in this conflagration of states, the track’s larger message hits home. As Greil Marcus once said: “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.”
With “Dixie,” Robertson had achieved a new vista, crafting a piece that echoed the rhythms of Helm’s Delta home, pulling in elements both personal and and historically specific. The song, for instance, begins with a reference to major general George Stoneman — a minor figure in the broader war but one who was deeply despised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina for his demoralizing scorched-earth raids on civilian targets, similar to Stoneman mentor William T. Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea.
All of this works in concert to conjure a sense of place so visceral, with shades both blues and gray, that it was difficult to believe the words didn’t actually belong to a son of the South like Levon himself. (Helm later said he took Robertson to the library to read up on the war; Robertson has said it took him some eight months to craft the lyrics.) By the time The Band emerged, every singer represented a different color palette to Robertson, and the images had gained a stunning dimension. And, as an outsider, he saw things in a way that someone more familiar with it all might never have.
“The only songs that we do in relation to the South at all are sung by Levon,” Robertson told Melody Maker in 1971, “and I write those songs for the people who sing them. Richard and Rick don’t sing about the South; it works for Levon because he’s from Arkansas. We’re not doing something that we don’t know nothing about. I’m trying to write songs that he could sing, lyrics that he can get off on — like ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’”
Garth Hudson contributes a Hohner Melodica, and a far-away trumpet, while Richard Manuel and Rick Danko only add to the chorus’ stunning depth of emotion. Together, they explore America’s mythical past not through the brittle prism of grand-standing debates and grade-school diaramas but as an individual drama, like finding a lost chapter of The Red Badge of Courage. And all of it is felt as much as heard in Levon’s lead vocal, creating as devastating a moment as has ever been played on rock radio — and one that’s gained even more resonance in this time without him.
Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.