On a self-titled album in 1969, the rock group The Band released “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song depicting the final days of the Confederacy in 1865. A long-time favorite of many, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Joan Baez (who altered some key lyrics), Johnny Cash, and Jerry Garcia. As the Civil War Sesquicentennial comes to a close, it seems fitting to examine the song and its historical imagery.
The song, so powerfully associated with the South and the Confederacy, was ironically written by a Canadian. Robbie Robertson, guitarist for The Band, conceived the tune after traveling through the southern United States and listening to older residents speak of “the South rising again.” Needing help with the historical content, Robertson enlisted the help of The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm. An Arkansas native, Helm recalled in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band that “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.” For his part, Robertson stated he wanted to write “the song right at Levon,” who would be the lead vocalist for the tune.