“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”…An Ironic Tale of Diversity Surrounding a Symbol of Division and Hate

As a young African-American child growing up around all types of music, I loved the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” particularly the pop cover by legendary folk singer Joan Baez.

What kid under the age of eight at the time didn’t?

After all, the 1971 hit was vivid in its easily understandable lyrics, had a great sing-along chorus, was very melodic and it pervaded American pop radio… basically all the makings of a child’s piece of irresistible pop music candy.

Folk singer Joan Baez’s 1971 single for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

What I didn’t know then was all that went into the song’s making and what the tune meant then (and now) to so many people.

Regarding Joan Baez, for starters, I didn’t know at the time what a “folk singer” was or that she had marched with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that she had protested the Vietnam War, or that she championed women’s issues and gay rights.

I didn’t even know that her version of the song was a cover of a tune by a group called “The Band,” a popular Canadian-American roots-rock group from the late ’60s (“The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek”) whom I only came to know several years after their popularity had waned.

I certainly didn’t know at the age of five or six that the song romanticized the wrong side of America’s greatest domestic war and was a semi-fictional tale told from the perspective of a poor white southerner named Virgil Caine who was crushed in defeat during the last days of that war.  I could follow the song’s lyrics, but their historical significance was too much for a five-year-old mind to comprehend.

Only later did I learn those things, or that The Band’s version made specific reference to a real-life Union Cavalry Officer named George Stoneman (later a California governor), and that the “Danville Train” in the song’s first verse refers to a train that actually carried Confederate army supplies to soldiers in Petersburg, Virginia…my hometown.

I did not know that Baez’s version curiously omitted the reference to the Union leader, a move that some conspiracy theorists might be inclined to think was motivated by ideological reasons.  Truth is, she had never seen a lyric sheet of the original and recorded the song as she’d misheard it, “so much cavalry came” vs. “Stoneman’s cavalry came,” in describing that Danville rail line’s destruction.

I also didn’t know, but sure was geeked in finding out, that Joan Baez, whose version was a top-3 pop hit at the end of 1971 and the most commercially successful, was of half-Mexican heritage.  Yes, her father was from the same Mexico that America (at least those who support the current regime) now seeks to separate itself from.

Yet Baez is herself such a great symbol of Americana, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement-winning singer/songwriter who was inducted into our Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just four months ago.

But the ironies continue.

Single cover art for 1969’s “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band

Only after researching it did I learn that The Band recorded their version of this romanticism of The Old South in the California home of Sammy Davis, Jr., a black man who also happened to be…wait, for it…

…Jewish.

In fact, the song’s writer, Robbie Robertson, is also Jewish, or at least a half-Jewish Canadian.  The other half of his bloodline is, get this, Mohawk Indian.  Yep, he’s a half-native-American Indian/ half-Jewish Canadian white man from Toronto.

Yet it was Robertson’s curiosity – sparked after hearing the term “the South will rise again” – that caused him to research the American Civil War and create what is largely heralded as its most vivid tale in rock and roll history.  Music experts have praised “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as something so authentic sounding that it had to have been “handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today.”

To that end, as a young black kid singing along to lyrics like “Virgil, quick, come see, there goes the Robert E. Lee,” I had no clue who that was and why he or it was something to see.

Or that his namesake was and continues to be such an important symbol for southern whites, some of whom are still irreconcilable after being more than 150 years removed from what they viewed as a most heroic effort on the part of the Confederacy and an unfair fight with the Union, lost only as a result of the Confederacy’s deficiencies in size and industrial strength.

In that way, the song has become associated with the ideology of the “Lost Cause,” a set of beliefs that include the revisionist notion that black slavery was not at the center of the Civil War – a theme that helped reunify northern and southern whites in the war’s immediate aftermath (and has continued to since).  In other words, this ideology purports to remove all guilt or blame associated with the country’s past.

And now here we are in August 2017, 152 years removed from the American Civil War and 48 years after The Band’s original version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” in the wake of one of this country’s ugliest episodes of civil unrest in recent memory.  The events in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 resulted in lost lives and a scar that will remain a part of that city’s legacy, mostly because a group of people motivated by hate want a return to the old ways, as symbolized by a statue of Robert E. Lee himself, which the city’s leaders ultimately want removed.

In essence, as clearly stated by one of the so-named “alt-right’s” leaders at Saturday’s violent protests, that group and its followers are carrying out the ideologies of a race-separating regime that promises to “Make America Great Again” and give them “their country back.”

That group holds on to the mantra that the “South will rise again” and that Dixie was never rightfully driven down in the first place.  They embrace the same type of self-victimization about the Civil War that places the blame for what happened in Charlottesville on anything other than the hate and divisiveness that was at its core and instigated by the group itself.

But the stories of diversity that surround the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are permanently linked to the recording; and that diversity runs so deep, it would make the most diehard followers of the alt-right movement disown it if they knew better.

Certainly, the irony of this historic song’s crucial ties to the Jewish-Canadian Mohawk Indian who wrote it, the half-Mexican/half-European folk singer/songwriter/civil rights female activist who popularized it, and the black Jewish man in whose home the original was recorded, has to be lost on those who’ve co-opted the song’s story as part of their ideology.

Particularly an ideology that believes (rightly or wrongly) that the song is so representative of a group of people who want to reestablish the “purity” of European white culture and its old ways of life.

It was certainly something I never fathomed at the age of five when it was a hit or in the years before I came to truly understand what and who the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee were.

But I definitely understand them now, even more so after the events in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017.

And yet there is still another bit of irony in all of this.

I actually still like the song – for many of the reasons that a five-year-old child would  – both The Band’s and Joan Baez’s versions.

You just won’t hear me singing along to that infectious chorus when it comes on again.

DJRob

The Danville rail line mentioned in the lyrics to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
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20 thoughts on ““The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”…An Ironic Tale of Diversity Surrounding a Symbol of Division and Hate”

    1. Yep, I thought it was THE Robert E. Lee, and I had that in the article before editing it out when I saw a lyric sheet that didn’t print it that way. I will correct it (after listening to the songs again). Thanks, Kurt!

      1. Someone else mentioned in your thread that he was sure the reference was to the man and not the boat. So I had to do a little research.

        My first question was “Would anyone in Tennessee have seen Robert E. Lee riding by with his troops?” Virtually every battle that Lee fought in was in Northern Virginia during the last few years of the War. Virginia does border Tennessee but it seems highly unlikely that Lee would have been riding by anywhere in Tennessee. Case solved, right?

        Nop. If the song does refer to the famous steamboat, then it does so about a year before the ship was ever launched. The waning days of the Civil War could be anywhere between November of 1864 and Spring of ’65. The Robert E. Lee was launched sometime in 1866 and became famous four years later when it beat another steamboat, the Natchez, in race on the Mississippi River.

        So who knows. Mr. Robertson may have made a small mistake when writing the song a century later.

        1. Thanks, Kurt! Your dedication to this topic is indisputable. As for the historical accuracy, is it possible that the song is written from the perspective of someone a year or so after the war had ended? After all, he is recalling “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” implying that he’s doing so after the fact. How far after the fact is quite possibly the question at hand here, but who’s to say it couldn’t have been a year or more afterward the war had ended?

  1. I was sent a link to this by an American friend as this — since Charlottesville — has been exercising me mightily. Like George III ‘I glory in the name of Briton’ and so even having spent a year in Virginia many years ago get very confused by US attitudes to race and the Recent Unpleasantness…..

  2. There are many changed lyrics in the Baez version even where the original lyrics sung by Levon Helm are perfectly clear e.g. “By May 10 Richmond had fell” becomes “I took the train to Richmond that fell” and “Like my father before me, I will work the land” becomes “Like my father before me, I’m a working man” and so on. It seems a very disrespectful and unprofessional misappropriation of the work of fellow musicians – I truly wonder what Robbie and Levon thought of this. That’s before we even get to contrasting the soul and emotion in the original version with the complete absence of it in the Baez version which she slaughters, reducing it to, as you say, pop candy. DJ Rob, as you can probably tell, I love the original and look forward to other artists being able to do justice to it. Best regards from England.

    1. Grahame, I understand and respect your view on Baez’s version. I tend to agree with it from a historical perspective. I’ve read where members of the Band didn’t like her take. I’m glad you took the time to read the article and comment. Cheers to you from America!

  3. I have also always had a mixed relationship with this song, for many of the reasons you mention. I was familiar with The Band before the Baez version so was familiar with much of the background. What I have found over the years, especially when remembering songs from my younger days (I was born in 1958 so it sounds like our youth overlaps a bit), is that many songs I liked have become problematic for me. I don’t mind problematic, it means I am at least somewhat aware of context and circumstance, but it does cause me to come to a more nuanced appreciation of a song. Whether the problematic part deals with race, gender, violence, whatever, being problematic means I have to listen more actively than I did when I was young. That is, of course, a good thing. We tend to take way too much stuff in passively and it influences us without us even knowing quite often, so an active engagement is always welcome. Thank you for your interesting take on this song.

    1. Earl, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your assessment on how our views on music and particular songs change as we age is right on. Those changes can be related to more actively listening to a song’s lyrics than we first did, or by things related directly to aging – like maturity and wisdom. For instance, I dislike “Rock Me Amadeus” much more now at 51 than I did when they were popular (and when I was 19). Thanks also for reading the blog.

  4. If you like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (and can savor both the tune and recognize the ironies) you’ll love “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — the (exquisitely chilling) Nazi anthem from Cabaret, written by a couple of gay Jews — and now a favorite of Richard Spencer.

    1. If Richard Spencer holds up vanilla ice cream as a symbol of white supremacy because it happens to be the best-selling flavor, am I supposed to stop “liking” that also?

      1. Not at all. I wasn’t trying to be critical or sarcastic, just offering an example of a similar phenomenon regarding another song.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29Mg6Gfh9Co

        (Note the bucolic sweetness at the beginning — then, the old Jewish guy — and finally the remark toward the end, “You still think you can control them?” Brilliantly effective!)

        As for The Band? One of my favorite songs (and musical groups)… I love Americana! Interestingly, I stumbled onto this blog by Googling the name of that tune, along with the word “Charlottesville” — curious to see what would come up. I found your perspective very insightful (though personally, I think Baez [uncharacteristically] butchers her version).

        Keep up the good work!

        1. Thanks, Mitchell. I misunderstood your point, and am glad you took the time to explain. I appreciate your perspective and the dialogue – makes blogging all the more worthwhile. And thanks also for explaining how you stumbled on the article. As for Baez, you’re right about how she butchers it, although I didn’t realize that until I researched the song and discovered how different it was from the original.

  5. I loved singing this when I was little in just the way you explain it, though I am a white northerner. As I grew up and learned to play guitar I became a huge fan of The Band and of Baez and often covered “The Night…” I guess I always thought the redemption of the song was to see the human side of conflict and to personalize what we all lose in war, a musical version of All Quiet on the Western Front.
    Your article is well timed since I have actually debated about whether I will ever sing this song again(I haven’t) since the events in Charlottesville. I may not, but I think it can be done if it is done Baez style, just after Joe Hill, and right before We Shall Overcome. All of us need to strive to better understand the whole human experience and that includes understanding that a poor working man who lost his brother in war is bitter in defeat. At my best I get that while knowing the cause was unjust. I think Robertson and Helm wanted us to see the humanity in everyone, a good message that is lost on many including the marchers in Charlottesville. Sadly though, now I feel like I would need to do a five minute explanatory discussion of the lyrics before I walked up to that first E minor. Too bad. It’s a great song.
    Thanks for a well written and thought provoking piece.

    1. And thank you, Jim, for an even more thought provoking and well written response. Your comments – as well as similar thoughts by others – have certainly made me see the song’s lyrics from a better perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, If I were writing the article today, I’d include your perspectives about the human side of conflict and draw a finer distinction between that and what the song’s symbols represented. I agree Robertson and Helm (and maybe Baez’s cover) did it with those thoughts in mind – I never questioned their motives. The ironies associated with the creation of the song are what I found most striking…and still do. Thank you very much!!

  6. Wow! I just stumbled across this website, and I remember the song well. The Joan Baez version that is, it was a juke box favourite in the ice cream parlour I worked in as a 15 year old.
    My take on it was as a reflection on a proud but ignorant (uneducated, not stupid) people who couldn’t see – or didn’t want to see – their way of life disappear.
    In the current political climate they might even succeed for a while. But if it does it will collapse, any authority that suppresses knowledge and education will never prevail.

    Roger.

    1. May I use your quote (the last sentence) on a Facebook post? I can’t think of a more profound statement that I’ve read in the past year. Thank you so much!

  7. I dont think this song is meant to romanticize anything about the civil war. I think its meant to show that every single person involved in a war, directly (such as Virgil’s brother who was laid in his grave by a Yankee) or indirectly (Virgil dealing with having his job taken from him and having his brother taken from him) is harmed immensely. People on winning sides of wars tend to dehumanize their opposition, reducing them to “the other.” This song reminds me that they are human beings, just like you and me.

    Think about this. If you were born as a poor white guy in 1855, you would have been 10 years old by the time of this song’s setting. Just an innocent child born into a life of war and destruction. Also think about this.. you would have been exactly the same as the people who were a part of the confederacy. It always sobers my mind to remember this difficult truth. It lends aid to understanding that not everyone who was born into a life of ignorance and hate is personally responsible for how they think. They were raised that way from the day they were born.

    I know Im commenting way too late for you to realistically see this, but i hope that it finds you, and anyone else who reads this.

    1. Believe it or not, I am notified of, and see, every comment on my articles. Yours is very thoughtful, and it simply reinforces a notion that I’ve always believed about hate – that is indeed a learned emotion when it is directed at a people based solely on traits that they are born with and not on their actions.

Your thoughts?