The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

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"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
side-B label
Side B of the Canadian single
Single by the Band
from the album The Band
A-side"Up on Cripple Creek"
ReleasedSeptember 22, 1969
GenreFolk rock[1][2]
Songwriter(s)Robbie Robertson
Producer(s)John Simon
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band on YouTube

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian-American roots rock group the Band in 1969 and released on their eponymous second album. Levon Helm provided the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the protagonist, a poor white Southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War, when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia. The song appeared at number 245 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Joan Baez's version peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 on 2 October 1971; it did likewise on the Cashbox Top 100 chart. However, on the Record World Top Singles chart for the week of September 25, 1971, the Baez single hit #1 for one week.[3]

Creation and recordings[edit]

The song was written by Robbie Robertson, who spent about eight months working on it.[4] Robertson said he had the music to the song in his head and would play the chords over and over on the piano but had no idea what the song was to be about. Then the concept came to him and he researched the subject with help from the Band's drummer Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas.[5][4] In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, Helm wrote, "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."

The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War, portraying the suffering of the protagonist, Virgil Caine, a poor white Southerner. Dixie is the historical nickname for the states making up the Confederate States of America.[6] The song's opening stanza refers to one of George Stoneman's raids behind Confederate lines attacking the railroads of Danville, Virginia, at the end of the Civil War in 1865:

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
Till Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it's a time I remember, oh so well

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is considered one of the highlights of The Band, the group's second album, which was released in the fall of 1969.[6] According to Rob Bowman's liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band, the album has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on the peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana.

A highlight of the group's repertoire, it has been included in every compilation covering their recording career 1968 to 1977.[7][8] The Band frequently performed the song in concert, and it is included on the group's live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). The song also was included in the Band's Thanksgiving Day concert in 1976 which was the subject of Martin Scorsese's documentary film The Last Waltz, and on that film's soundtrack released in 1978.

The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz. Helm refused to play the song afterwards. Although it has long been believed that the reason for Helm's refusal to play the song was a dispute with Robertson over songwriting credits, according to Garth Hudson the refusal was due to Helm's dislike for Joan Baez's version.[9]


The song was number 245 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.[5] Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the 1960s.[10] The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll"[11] and Time magazine's All-Time 100.[12]

Critic Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (U.S. 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.

The lyrics of the song discuss the destruction of the Richmond and Danville Railroad that carried supplies for the Confederate Army at Petersburg.[13]

21st century political criticism[edit]

Some commentators in the 21st century have questioned whether the song's original lyrics made it an endorsement of slavery and the ideology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.[14] In 2009, writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates characterized the song as "another story about the blues of Pharaoh."[15] In an August 2020 interview in Rolling Stone, contemporary singer-songwriter Early James described how he had started changing the lyrics of the song, while covering it, to oppose the Confederate cause — for example, in the first verse, "where Helm sang that the fall of the Confederacy was 'a time I remember oh so well,' James declared it 'a time to bid farewell," and he reworked the final verse to state "Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand... I think it's time we laid hate in its grave."[16] An editorial in The Roanoke Times in 2020 argued that these views are based on a misunderstanding of the song, which does not glorify slavery, the Confederacy, or Robert E. Lee, but, rather, tells the story of a poor, non-slave-holding Southerner who tries to make sense of the loss of his brother and his livelihood. It notes that it was written, not by a Southerner, but by a Canadian, and contained factual errors.[17] Jack Hamilton, of the University of Virginia, writing in Slate, said that it is "an anti-war song first and foremost", pointing to the references to "bells ringing" and "people singing" in the chorus.[18]

Joan Baez version[edit]

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
side-A label
One of US reissues
Single by Joan Baez
from the album Blessed Are...
B-side"When Time Is Stolen"
ReleasedAugust 1971
GenreCountry Folk
Songwriter(s)Robbie Robertson
Producer(s)Norbert Putnam
Joan Baez singles chronology
"Sweet Sir Galahad"
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
"Love Song to a Stranger"

The most successful version of the song was the one by Joan Baez, which became a RIAA-certified Gold record on 22 October 1971.[19] In addition to chart action on the Hot 100, the record spent five weeks atop the easy listening chart.[20] Billboard ranked it as the No. 20 song for 1971. The version reached number six in the pop charts in the UK in October 1971.

The Baez recording had some changes in the lyrics.[21] 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 had (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson.[22]

Chart performance[edit]

Weekly singles charts[edit]

Chart (1971) Peak
Australia National Top 40 (Go-Set)[23] 5
Canada RPM Top Singles[24] 3
Canada RPM Adult Contemporary[25] 1
Ireland (IRMA)[26] 8
New Zealand (Listener)[27] 4
UK Singles Chart[28] 6
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 3
U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary 1
U.S. Cashbox Top 100[29] 3

Year-end charts[edit]

Chart (1971) Rank
Canada[30] 39
U.S. Billboard Hot 100[31] 20
U.S. Cash Box[32] 21


Certifications for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Region Certification Certified units/sales
United States (RIAA)[33] Gold 1,000,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

Other versions[edit]

Johnny Cash recorded 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. the Charlie Daniels Band, Big Country, the Dave Brockie Experience, Vikki Carr, Richie Havens, the Black Crowes, Solomon Burke, Earl Thomas Conley, the Jerry Garcia Band, Sophie B. Hawkins, Legion of Mary, and the Zac Brown Band have included it on live albums. In 2008, Johnny Logan covered the song on his album, Irishman in America. Glen Hansard (of the Frames and the Swell Season), accompanied by Lisa Hannigan and John Smith, performed the song in July 2012 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover: Summer Break series.[34]

The 1972 song "Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb" ("On the Day That Conny Kramer Died"), which uses the tune of the song, was a number-one hit in West Germany for singer Juliane Werding. The lyrics are about a young man dying because of his drug addiction. 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").

Samples from the song can be found in the 2006 song "Stopping All Stations" released by Australian hip-hop group Hilltop Hoods, played at a higher pitch and at an increased speed. The song follows a fictional storyline of three separate events, written by MC Pressure and influenced by a "series of robbings, stabbings and bashings of senior citizens" across the various Adelaide Metro train-lines in South Australia.[35] In 2007, Hilltop Hoods released "Stopping All Stations Restrung" featuring the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Personnel on the Band version[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pitchfork Staff (August 18, 2006). "The 200 Best Songs of the 1960s". Pitchfork. Retrieved October 12, 2022. ...whose dramatic performance here turns a period piece that could have been a "Schoolhouse Rock" episode into a mournful piece of folk-rock.
  2. ^ Valdez, Steve (2014). "Folk rock". In Henderson, Lol; Stacey, Lee (eds.). Encyclopedia of Music in the 20th Century. London: Routledge. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-135-92946-6.
  3. ^ "Record World Top Single Chart" (PDF). Record World. 26 (1267): 35. September 25, 1971.
  4. ^ a b Hoskyns, Barney (1993). Across the Great Divide: The Band and America. Hyperion. p. 175. ISBN 1-56282-836-3.
  5. ^ a b "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on June 21, 2008. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
  6. ^ a b Ankeny, Jason. "The Band: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". AllMusic. Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  7. ^ Marcus, Greil (October 19, 2010). Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. PublicAffairs. pp. 73. ISBN 9781586489199. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  8. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "The Band: A Musical History". AllMusic. Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  9. ^ Margolis, Lynne (August 30, 2012). "No False Bones: The Legacy of Levon Helm". American Songwriter. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  10. ^ "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s: Part Four: #60-21", Pitchfork Media, August 17, 2006
  11. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock". Retrieved November 6, 2011.
  12. ^ Cruz, Gilbert (October 24, 2011). "100 Greatest Popular Songs: TIME List of Best Music". Time. Retrieved November 6, 2011.
  13. ^ Bailey, Frankie Y.; Green, Alice P. (2011). Wicked Danville: Liquor and Lawlessness in a Southside Virginia City. The History Press. pp. 103–. ISBN 9781609490379. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  14. ^ Hamilton, Jack (August 13, 2020). "Is "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Really a Pro-Confederate Anthem?". Slate. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
  15. ^ Coates, Ta-Nehisi (August 17, 2009). "Virginia". The Atlantic. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
  16. ^ Vozick-Levinson, Simon (August 6, 2020). "Can 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' Be Redeemed?". Rolling Stone. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
  17. ^ "Editorial: Is 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' cancelled?". The Roanoke Times. August 20, 2020.
  18. ^ Hamilton, Jack (August 13, 2020). "The Troublesome Case of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'". Slate.
  19. ^ "Joan Baez The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved September 17, 2020.
  20. ^ The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 6th Edition, 1996 p. 43
  21. ^ 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 version: "Two years later, Joan Baez recorded a terrible version of 'Dixie' that seemed to turn Robert E. Lee into a steamboat, but it made"
  22. ^ Kurt Loder (April 14, 1983). "Joan Baez: The Rolling Stone Interview". Rolling Stone. No. 393.
  23. ^ "Go-Set National Top 40". December 4, 1971. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  24. ^ "RPM Singles - Top Hits of '71". Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  25. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". October 9, 1971. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  26. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  27. ^ "flavour of new zealand - search listener". Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  28. ^ "JOAN BAEZ - full Official Chart History - Official Charts Company".
  29. ^ "Cash Box Top 100 10/02/71". October 2, 1971. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  30. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  31. ^ "Top 100 Hits of 1971/Top 100 Songs of 1971". Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  32. ^ "Cash Box YE Pop Singles - 1971". December 25, 1971. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  33. ^ "American single certifications – Joan Baez – Joan Baez in Concert". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
  34. ^ "Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan & John Smith cover The Band". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 6, 2013.
  35. ^ Hilltop Hoods Talk About making "Stopping All Stations, retrieved April 11, 2023

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]