The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

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 Caine, 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 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 of both blue 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.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • Sophia Stuart

    I disagree – this song does show sympathy to the South & by not including the horrific imagery of the rape, murder and terrorizing that captured African-Americans endured for hundreds of years & the fact Southern states clung to the abhorrent and monstrous activity of enslaving humans against their will, and refused to free them to the point of plunging the country into Civil War, Robbie Robertson really just reinforced the Old South version of the Civil War in ‘Dixie.’ He presents a lyric, “The Night They Drove Ole’ Dixie Down’ rather than ‘The Night Dixie Brought About its Own Demise.’ By highlighting the yes, terrible acts, performed by some Union Officers, his song is a refrain of the age-old complaints that Southerners use to excuse oppression and disenfranchisement to African-Americans to this day: By drawing attention to the again, yes, atrocities of war; and white-washing the ugly crimson stain upon their land that their absolute and resolute refusal to abolish slavery left. I love The Band – always have, always will. They are brilliant, beautiful, talented musicians and songwriters. When I heard this song in 1971, as a fan, I saw through it then, as I do now. Melodically gorgeous and as you say, haunting and superbly written; yet at the same time reinforces a time honored Southern ‘Gone With The Wind’ perspective of the Civil War that IGNORES the horror, the horror: of slavery.

    • Nick DeRiso

      Thanks for the comment, Sophia. You’ve brought up some very salient points.

      I will say that I think Robertson chose his characters, and the setting, very wisely here: My understanding of it, as someone who lives nearby, is that this referenced area of the Appalachians didn’t hold many slaves. These were apparently small farming communities, typically made up of individual tracts of land — with no real use for a large indentured work force. The story has always been that those in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee actually held their own biases against the far-more-priviledged slaveholders, and took to the rebel cause out of sense of duty more than of trying to protect that way of life. If true, then it would certainly have freed Robertson narratively to go in the direction that he did.

      I’m no Civil War historian, however, so others may know more.

      The only thing I’d add to your comment is this word: “His song is a refrain of the age-old complaints that [some] Southerners use to excuse oppression and disenfranchisement to African-Americans to this day.” The South has never been a more diverse place, and it seems unfair to use a brushstroke quite that large in talking about this very important issue.

    • Road Tested

      OMG! Bless your heart.

    • Terry Koontz

      And I disagree with you as well. Most southern soldiers didn’t own slaves and indeed many were conscripted against their will! I have performed this song and usually preface it with the statement that it’s not a song about the South, but that it’s a song of a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”

    • Richard Heed

      Sofia, you write as if the common southern soldier were all blood lusting, slave owning killing/raping machines. The song, to me, reflects on the plight of the common soldier being dragged into a conflict he has no interest in. The common Confederate soldier was a yeoman, who worked his land himself. Not by the way of slaves. The southern aristocrats, for the most part, were the ones who owned the slaves and were responsible for the war. They played on the common man’s sense of duty to defend the South and his ‘way of life.’ I assure you that racism and general attitudes towards blacks were no better in the North than the South at the time. So please stop with the politically correct/sanctimonious act. We don’t need worthless platitudes.

  • Preston Frazier

    An interesting perspective on a truly great song.

  • Something Else!

    Fans of Levon Helm and the Band will be interested in our newly published talk with Helm’s daughter Amy Helm. She talks about some early memories of life with the Band, the impact of working with her father, and the emotions surrounding Levon’s late-career resurgence …

    http://somethingelsereviews.com/2013/10/02/its-been-a-very-positive-time-actually-a-flurry-of-activity-recognition-has-followed-passing-of-levon-helm/

  • E. Messina

    There’s another element that may or may not have been intended but that had relevance at the time. The song can be seen as an allegorical lament for the failures of the cultural revolution that was occurring at the time and had, by 1969, when the song was recorded, been “driven down” by the assassinations of MLK & RFK, the events surrounding 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, etc.