The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
|"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"|
|Single by The Band|
|from the album The Band|
|A-side||"Up on Cripple Creek"|
|Released||September 22, 1969|
|Genre||Roots rock, Southern rock, Americana|
The song was written by Robbie Robertson. The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and the suffering of white Southerners, as evidenced by the lyric "the winter of '65". Dixie is a nickname for the Southern Confederate states. Confederate soldier Virgil Caine "served on the Danville train" (the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a main supply line into the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia from Danville, Virginia, and by connection, the rest of the South). Union cavalry regularly tore up Confederate rail lines to prevent the movement of men and material to the front where Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at the Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman's forces "tore up the track again".
The song's lyric refers to conditions in the Southern states in the winter of early 1865 ("We were hungry / Just barely alive"); the Confederate states are starving and defeated. Reference is made to the date May 10, 1865, by which time the Confederate capital of Richmond had long since fallen (in April); May 10 marked the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the definitive end of the Confederacy.
Robertson claimed that he had the music to the song in his head but had no idea what it was to be about: "At some point [the concept] blurted out to me. Then I went and I did some research and I wrote the lyrics to the song." Robertson continued:
When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, "Well don't worry, the South's gonna rise again." At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, "God, because I keep hearing this, there's pain here, there is a sadness here." In Americana land, it's a kind of a beautiful sadness.
Context within the album and The Band's history
According to Rob Bowman's liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band's second album, The Band, it has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana. Though never a major hit, "Dixie" was the centerpiece of the record, and, along with "The Weight" from Music From Big Pink, remains one of the songs most identified with the group.
The Band frequently performed the song in concert, and it can be found on the group's live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). It was also a highlight of their "farewell" concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976, and is featured in the documentary film about the concert, The Last Waltz, as well as the soundtrack album from the film.
Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the Sixties. The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and Time Magazine's All-Time 100.
The last time the song was performed by Levon Helm was in The Last Waltz (1976). Helm, a native of Arkansas, has stated that he assisted in the research for the lyrics. In his 1993 book This Wheel's on Fire, Helm writes "Robbie and I worked on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect."
Helm refused to play the song after 1976 even though he held concerts, which he called "Midnight Rambles", several times a month at his private residence in Woodstock, New York.
Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners:
Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It's a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.
Covers of the song
|"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"|
|Single by Joan Baez|
|from the album Blessed Are...|
|B-side||When Time Is Stolen|
The most successful English-language cover of the song was a version by Joan Baez released in 1971, which peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US in October that year and spent five weeks atop the easy listening chart. Billboard ranked it as the No. 20 song for 1971. The version was also well received in the UK, reaching number six in the pop charts in October 1971.
Baez's version made some changes to the song lyric; The second line "Till Stoneman's cavalry came". Baez sings "Till so much cavalry came". She also changed "May the tenth" to "I took the train". In addition, the line "like my father before me, I will work the land" was changed to "like my father before me, I'm a working man", changing the narrator from a farmer to a laborer. In the last verse she changed "the mud below my feet" to "the blood below my feet".
Baez later told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder that she initially learned the song by listening to the recording on the Band's album, and had never seen the printed lyrics at the time she recorded it, and thus sang the lyrics as she'd (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson. The song became the highest charting U.S. single of Baez' career, and has remained a staple of her concert set list, from that point forward.
Johnny Cash covered the song on his 1975 album John R. Cash. Old-time musician Jimmy Arnold recorded the song on his album Southern Soul, which was composed of songs associated with the Southern side of the Civil War. A fairly large-scale orchestrated version of the song appears on the 1971 concept album California '99 by Jimmie Haskell, with lead vocal by Jimmy Witherspoon. Others to record versions include Don Rich, Steve Young, John Denver, The Allman Brothers Band, Derek Warfield
In 1972, a cover of the song called "Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb" (translation: "On the Day that Conny Kramer Died") was a number-one hit in West Germany for singer Juliane Werding. For this version, the lyrics were not translated but rather changed completely to an anti-drug anthem about a young man dying because of his drug addiction - an extremely hot topic in that year, when heroin was making the first big inroads in Germany. In 1986, the German band Die Goldenen Zitronen made a parody version of this song with the title "Am Tag als Thomas Anders starb" ("On the Day that Thomas Anders Died").
Personnel on The Band version
- Levon Helm – lead vocal, drums
- Rick Danko – bass guitar, harmony vocal
- Garth Hudson – melodica, slide trumpet
- Richard Manuel – acoustic piano, harmony vocal
- Robbie Robertson – acoustic guitar
- "Link to a version of the lyrics". Metrolyrics.com. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- The Band: The Last Waltz
- "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down : Rolling Stone". Archived from the original on 2008-06-21. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
- "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s: Part Four: #60-21", Pitchfork Media, August 17, 2006
- "InfoPlease Almanac". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- Cruz, Gilbert (2011-10-24). "100 Greatest Popular Songs: TIME List of Best Music | Entertainment | 'Tightrope' | TIME.com". Entertainment.time.com. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 6th Edition, 1996
- Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1971
- The Last Waltz of The Band Neil Minturn - 2005- Page 85 "be more familiar to some in Joan Baez's version. Hoskyns remarks of Baez's cover: "Two years later, Joan Baez recorded a terrible version of 'Dixie' that seemed to turn Robert E. Lee into a steamboat, but it made "
- Kurt Loder (1983). "Joan Baez: The Rolling Stone Interview". Rolling Stone 4/14/83 (issue # 393)/4
- "Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan & John Smith cover The Band". Retrieved April 6, 2013.
- Analysis and discussion of the song
- Classic Tracks: The Band 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'
- Full lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics