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

(August 13, 2017). 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 when it wasn’t popular to do so.

I didn’t even know that her version of the song wasn’t the first, but 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 – and admire – 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, which happens to be 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 was surely geeked in discovering – that Joan Baez, whose version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was a top-3 pop hit at the end of 1971 and also 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 administration) now seeks to separate itself from via a wall erected at our southern border.

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 original version of this slice of Old South romanticism in the liberal state of California – in the home of the late Sammy Davis, Jr., a black man who also happened to be…

…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 for the first time 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 this Lee fella was or why he – or it in this case – was something special to see.

Or that his namesake was and continues to be such an important symbol for southern whites, some of whom are still inconsolable 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 lodged by the Union; a war lost to the North only because of the Confederacy’s considerable 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 this 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 a lost life and an ugly 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 any 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 suggests (rightly or wrongly) that the song is 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. They are both pieces of pure art, beautiful art that uniquely captures a part of American history that still divides some of us to this day.

Yet, as much as I love it, maybe you just won’t hear me singing aloud 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”

DJRob is an African-American freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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47 Replies to ““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?

      2. Please read the lyrics. It is about the suffering of the South not the glory. Virgil Caine is my name and I drove 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
        I took the train to Richmond that fell
        It was a time I remember, oh, so well

  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.

  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.

  8. Thanks for writing about this. I was recently back in Australia for my father’s funeral. He loved this song and mum thought we should play it. I’ve been living in the US for 18 years now and I just cringed at the thought… I don’t think I could listen to it without thinking of the resurgence of publicly visible (it’s always been there… but now it’s loud) white supremacism in the last few years. But when I was growing up and Dad would play the Band all the time, I couldn’t reliably have told you which side of the civil war it was about.

  9. You are very mistaken if you believe the Civil War was fought over slavery. The only people who spread that falsehood are people who haven’t studied that part of history very thoroughly. The main driver of that war was states rights, and one of the issues with individual states happened to be slavery. The south wasn’t singularly guilty of slavery and the north wasn’t completely innocent. And no Abraham Lincoln was not a huge advocate of ending slavery (in fact I’m shocked that people haven’t studied this particular falsehood that gets oft repeated.).

    It’s dangerous to try and change history. Slavery was a terrible part of our country’s history and something that took way too long to abolish. But trying to change history to force the issue as being the key issue in the civil war is reckless, as is the bad habit of trying to frame people who tell history truthfully as being racist.

    1. Actually, the only thing that’s reckless is your framing slavery as a mere footnote in a war that had it gone the other way, blacks might still have been slaves. But since you’re an expert on this part of history, by what other means would slavery have ended were it not for the Civil War and it’s appropriate outcome?

    2. I have studied the subject, and without a predisposition to justifying things. The war was indeed over slavery, disguised as states rights. The issue was whether future states would be admitted as slave states. It was not one of many equal factors in the states rights battle, it was the primary driver. So before you keep advocating for a long disproven explanation of the war try reading contemporary scholarship on the topic. The explanation you blindly offer was promoted as a way to make things seem less disgusting for the Confederacy. Much like the mass production of Confederate monuments when Jim Crow was underway.

  10. I just read the blog and the comments, but there still seems to be no real answer as to how/why these progressive singers and songwriters wrote & sang this song. I used to wonder if the song was somehow meant to be sarcastic, but after listening to it many times, I think the song is sincere. Then I found Robbie Robertson’s explanation (below), and I realized that he had a real love of the South and had accepted and internalized the Southern view of the war as if he was a true child of the old South.

    Robbie Robertson: “Tennessee Williams just appealed to me, the flavour of writing, the titles of the things, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – this catches my attention, partially because I had gone to the South from Canada, really ying and yang, really a big extreme, so it hit me much harder than somebody who had gone from Washington, DC down to South Carolina – I went from Toronto to the Mississippi Delta, and … I liked the way people talked, I liked the way they moved. I liked being in a place that had rhythm in the air. I thought ‘No wonder they invented rock ‘n’ roll here. Everything sounds like music. … and I got to come into this world, a cold outsider – cold literally from Canada … and because I didn’t take it for granted, it made me write something like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down .These old men would say , ‘Yeah, but never mind Robbie. One of these days the South is going to rise again.’ I didn’t take it as a joke. I thought it was really touching, that these people lived this world from the standpoint of a rocking chair.’ “

  11. What i don’t understand is why so many black people in the south stand behind the confederate flag? Last time in florida, i witnessed many black people wearing confederate shirts, hats, bandanas, and had flag emblems on their cars. Why isn’t it concidered racist to those black people?

  12. Earl, I have two advanced degrees around history and Wilkie is indeed correct. Slavery was not THE reason for the Civil War; if that were the sole reason the war was fought there would have been a few Confederate and Union states that would have been on the other side. States’ rights and western expansion were the actual reasons that war happened, and slavery was one of the issue argued around states’ rights.

    It’s dangerous to try and rewrite the history books to forward political agendas (I’m not accusing you of that; it’s something that those in political power have tried to do for many years, changing one small detail at a time until we end up with the fiction discussed in the link you posted). In fact, it’s something we would expect to see in communist countries and/or dictatorships.

    I always encourage anyone wanting to learn about the Civil War to read literary works penned pre-1950 because many newer works were written based on the false and overly simplistic notion that the Confederate states seceded over slavery.

    Not only is that patently false, but it leads people to believe that without slavery there never would have been a Civil War, which anyone who has studied it know is not true.

    1. Congratulations on your degrees, but they really don’t mean that you are THE authority on the subject. Claiming that reading the past through something other than the racist lens of pre-1950 is the “true” way is absurd at best and blatantly racist at worst. What you so pompously claim is that you, because of your “advanced” degrees, have the true opinion while the multitude of historians, the vast majority of whom also have multiple advanced degrees as well as years of research into this specific issue, who say, with plenty of facts to support them, that the state’s rights aspect was still centered on slavery and not some abstract idea of state’s rights,

      You can continue to live in your fantasy world, I really don’t care. But you sure do sound like the current crop of “fake news” whiners who make that claim when their claims to entitlement and superiority are opposed by facts and far less biased assessment. I may only have an undergrad in history but my advanced degrees included work in this topic because I did several area studies, so your advanced degrees and a couple dollars can get you a nice cup of coffee some place. Enjoy your narrow view and please, do not refer to me again with your junk pseudo-history. Buh-bye.

      1. Let it go. The Civil War was fought primarily over slavery. Since you consider yourself to be in a story and I’m surprised you don’t know this. Are you have to do is read “The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States” which is the state’s account of why they’re leaving the Union.
        For example Mississippi wrote:
        “ Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world”. There were other reasons why the States wanted to leave the union, but this is the primary one so please stop spreading false history.
        By the way, I‘d like to say that as a child and as an adult I’ve always thought this song is the (fictitious) re-counting of the effects of the Civil War from one person who happens to be on the Confederate side. I never felt that the song was proslavery or pro ”The South will rise again“ just a moving and sometimes haunting retelling of what one person went through during that war. We don’t always think of the people Who were not fighting and how they suffered too.

        https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states

        1. I think you just need to agree to disagree. The war was about states’ rights, and slavery happened to be the biggest issue at the time. But that does not mean the way was about slavery. You can believe what you want and it’s no skin off my back; people are going to say whatever suits their agenda whether it’s right or wrong.

  13. An American friend sent me this post with regard to American culture and its relationship with the racial turmoil the US is embroiled in once again. Thank you for an interesting piece. As a non-American my thoughts on this have little value, but I would like to point out the value of personal experience in a national memory. Here in Israel, for example, there still is a significant disagreement around playing Richard Wagner’s music, because of his toxic antisemitism and the vast association with the Nazi regime (which came to power decades after Wagner’s death). This, despite the fact that he’s a classic composer and the number of people who are actually disturbed my his music is very small. On the other hand, works by Richard Strauss, who, for a time, was actually active in the Nazi regime, have been played for the last decades without a problem. This brought about an Israeli discussion of the connection between the artists, their works and their historic context. Wagner was a terrible antisemite, but “Ride of the Valkyries” is a brilliant work of music regardless. In the American case it is even more significant- the artist of The Band obviously did not express any radical views, they only wrote a song about a very difficult and traumatic event in American history.

    I think that in many cases it is valuable to look beyond the immediate association: the fact that many people associate “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with modern day political causes of the far right does not actually mean that it is associated with it. As you’ve said, it is a song dealing much more with a personal experience, as expressed in the words of a Canadian who is of half Jewish and half Native American origin, who was interested in the American South. We can’t discard works of art only based on people who interpret them, because this way we lose the ability to discuss both history and art. It is very much possible to feel the pain of the poor, suffering southerner following a disastrous war without thinking that “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy” is a positive political phenomenon. You can value the work of Wagner while pointing out that he held abhorrent views and his music was used by criminals. Removing books and films from libraries does not actually change history, it only makes each side more entrenched in their position as an expression of the only “right truth”. In order to be able to discuss political wrongs of the past we need to know and discuss the complex history, which you have demonstrated in a great way by describing the story behind “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and the way it presents the “Alt-Right” ideologues in a ridiculous light.

    1. What a brilliant piece of insight from you Jenia. I am glad you appreciated the piece and, quite frankly, I appreciate the song more now than I did three years ago when I wrote it. The current issues we’re facing in the U.S. have only illustrated what you pointed out – that, no matter how many people appear to be awakening to the issues of racism here, there are still many people who are entrenched in their own truths, whether or not it acknowledges the existence of systemic racism in this country. Thank you so much!

  14. It’s the end of June, 2020, and I’m writing to say thanks for such a thoughtful, educational, and fascinating article. As a conflict resolution professional who teaches the subject at Harvard Law School (where like all American institutions, we have our share of racism and racial strife), I deeply appreciate the nuance and humanity of your perspective. I also appreciate your thoughtful responses to all the comments. Comments sections are so often forums for unmediated anger and hate, so it’s refreshing to see people actually listening to, and respecting, each other. (I’ll also mention that I’m a big fan of The Band, music, and music criticism.).

    1. Thanks, Mr. Stone. I really appreciate the feedback and I realize that the article has garnered more interest during today’s new racial reckoning in America and elsewhere. I always appreciate different perspectives and realize that this issue sparks debate more than any. Thank you, again!

      DJRob

  15. I’m a big fan of The Band, including this song. I really appreciated the article and I have a couple of thoughts to share.

    I think some of the previous comments correctly answer the question of why these progressive-minded musicians wrote and performed this spirited anthem that seemed to glorify the Confederacy: acknowledging the suffering of the defeated southerners is a humane act, very much in line with progressive values. I’ve read that by making the protagonist (Virgil Caine) a farmer from Tennessee, a state where slaveholding was not common, Robertson made a conscious effort to separate the sentiment of allegiance to the South from the cause of slavery.

    The Band’s Big Pink period, the time they spent making music with Bob Dylan in rural Woodstock, was their defining formative experience. Robertson has described what they were doing at the time as “rebelling against the rebellion.” A good illustration of this is Tears of Rage, the opening song on Music from Big Pink, which is sung from the perspective of a parent who feels betrayed by their child’s abandonment of the patriotism that was part of their upbringing. (“We carried you in our arms on Independence Day, and now you throw us all aside and put us all away”). The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down can be understood in the same way. The youth movements of the 1960’s were right about civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, etc., but Dylan and The Band seemed to be challenging the orthodoxies of the counterculture. This is sort of analogous to present day voices, like Dave Chappelle, who are progressive-minded but see a need to challenge certain progressive dogma.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and, mostly, for commenting. Very insightful thoughts indeed. I appreciate The Band more now than I did when I wrote the article, not just because of your comment, but because I’ve researched them more since and have listened to their catalogue. Thanks again!

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