As the world mourns this week of the loss of one of its truly great rock lyricists and performers, Robbie Robertson, at age 80, there is one important point I would like to inject in the amassing narrative about him while people are still paying attention.
It has to do with perhaps his most iconic song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” written very early on in Robertson’s career and first recorded in 1969 by Robertson’s group, The Band, in only its second album. The mesmerizing song has been recorded dozens of times by the best performers of that period, and it was Joan Baez’s version in 1971 that became the most popular, though my favorite is the recording of a live version by the Jerry Garcia Band in 1991 because of its slower tempo.
When I first heard The Garcia Band version I was immediately smitten, and was sure it had to have been based on some original song from that post-Civil War era because of its vivid imagery and down home storytelling. It is to me the kind of song that had enough historical content to have been made into an entire movie, or mini-series. Actually, Robertson’s hobbies earlier in life in New York City had included collecting movie scripts.
My point in invoking that song and those lyrics is to insist adamantly that they do not in any way constitute a pro-Confederate sentiment. If anything, it was the opposite. That is, the song is about the personal horror and tragedy of being roped into a war, period.
The first-person voice in the song, originally sung by Levon Helm, is a dirt farmer in Tennessee with no stake in the outcome of the war, but who laments what the war did to him and his family. He and his relatives were among the over 600,000 Americans who lost their lives over just four years in that terrible war, driven to fight by the brutal insistence of slave-owning plantation owners who were willing to send their own sons and those of poor southern families, such as the one cited in the Robertson song, into battle to get slaughtered in order to prop up their immoral racist system.
Joan Baez, the anti-Vietnam war activist, surely recognized this about the song when she recorded a version in 1971 that readily became its most popular rendering. While it is probably true that pro-slavery proponents of the Southern Jim Crow laws and Lost Cause movement sought to associate the song with their pro-Confederate causes, ignoring its true content, Robertson may not have been politically attuned enough to recognize that subtle attempt to rip if off. But in my view, the sincere pathos in the song overrides any feeble attempt to draw an unintended pro-Confederate inference from it.
The song’s story line begins with, “Virgil Kane 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 10th, Richmond had fell. It’s a time I remember oh so well.”
Then after the refrain, “The night they drove old Dixie down and the bells were ringing, the night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing. They went, ‘Na, na, la, na, na, la,” the comes to the next verse of narrative,
“Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me, ‘Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee,” the lyric goes. It proceeds to “Now, I don’t mind chopping wood and I don’t care if my money’s no good. You take what you need and you leave the rest. But they never should have taken the very best.”
After the refrain line again, it goes, “Like my father before me, I will work the land, and like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand…He was just 18, proud and brave, but 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.”
Refrain: “….All the people were singing…” The war was over.