The Band Sings About The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Richmond Burnt
Richmond, Virginia in April 1865

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 Needing help with the historical content, Robertson enlisted the help of The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm.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.

The piece is sung through the persona of the fictional character Virgil Caine, an ex-Confederate reflecting upon the suffering and desolation of the war’s final days after he returns home to his native state of Tennessee. The historical context begins in the first verse:

Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s Calvary came and tore up the track again

During the siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, The Richmond-Danville Railroad was the vital supply link between Richmond and south-central Virginia. In March 1865, Union Calvary General George Stoneman led a raid into western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia to disrupt Confederate supply lines by destroying railroads throughout the region.

In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May 10th, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember oh so well

The Band
Album Cover for The Band released in 1969

Food shortages in Richmond had become particularly dreadful during the final year of the war. “Starvation parties,” where people gathered to dance and socialize without food or drink, were a common form of entertainment in the city during the time. Having been occupied by Union forces on April 3, 1865, Richmond had fallen by the tenth, but May 10, 1865 is also symbolic as being the day Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured by Union forces and U.S. President Andrew Johnson declared an end to hostilities.

 

 

The chorus of the song then begins:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singing
They went ‘La, na, na, na, na, na  ‘La, na, na  ‘La, na, na 

The bells ringing and the people singing in the chorus serves the dual distinction of reflecting both the joy of occupying Union soldiers and African-American residents along with the sorrow of the Southern populace in their defeat.

The second verse places Virgil back in his home state:

Back with my wife in Tennessee when one day she called to me
Virgil quick come see, there goes Robert E. Lee

Although Robert E. Lee was never in Tennessee after the Civil War, it was not uncommon for people throughout the South to claim or believe they had seen the iconic Lee pass by at one time or another.

I don’t mind chopping wood and I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need and leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best 

Confederate money was virtually worthless during the war and of no value after. The conflict also devastated the southern economy and infrastructure.

The final verses speak to the choosing of sides in the border area of Tennessee and the anguish of losing loved ones in the fighting:

Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me who took a Rebel stand
He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat 

Some see symbolism in the final line of no longer being able to “raise Caine” and as a reference to the biblical brothers Cain and Abel.

In 1976, The Band performed its farewell concert appearance, called The Last Waltz, and was joined by numerous guests, such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, and Eric Clapton. The concert was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and released as a documentary by the same name in 1978. During the show, Helm delivers a rendition of the ballad that he describes as “maybe the best live performance of this song we ever gave.”

Enjoy.

10 Comments

  1. This is excellent …… I think war between the states war music and modern songs about the war and times should be a regular feature of your blog

  2. This song was written about General George Stoneman’s raid into North Carolina and Western Virginia. It is a great article and a beautiful song. George Stoneman came to Scottsdale Arizona and built a military road between Fort McDowell and Fort Whipple in Prescott Arizona. It was approximately 70 miles long. Three years ago the Scottsdale Civil War Roundtable along with the Stoneman Road Task Force mapped and surveyed the Road which was long lost to history. It took about 3 years
    All of our findings have been turned over to the Arizona Historical society in hopes of making this a Historical Military road
    Dr John Bamberl
    President
    Scottsdale Civil War Roundtable

  3. “But they should never have taken the very best”

    Wow, biggest line of the song and totally missed. The “very best’ are the soldiers that died in the war.

    • That line, like others, is open to various interpretations when taken in or out of the context of the entire stanza.

  4. I just recently found your work here and with appreciation posted a link on twitter. I love the song’s historical references and always imagined “taken the very best” as referring to the total destruction in the South. What are the other interpretations you mentioned?

    • Thanks for your comment and sharing. The most common interpretation is the one you mentioned. But some view the line as a reference specifically to the Confederate soldiers who died in the war. Another interpretation is the line is a reference to the death of his brother in the next stanza. To my knowledge, Robbie Robertson never commented on the true meaning of the lyrics.

  5. In many recordings of this song the lyric is “there goes THE Robert E. Lee”, I, being a Brit and alas not too well up on my US Civil War history assumed that related to the ship named Robert E. Lee, but of course that was not built until after the war. My assumption then is the lyric refers to a train named for Robert E. Lee on the aformentioned railroad rather than the man himself.

    • Several artists altered lyrics when they covered the song and the idea you present does come up for debate at times. It appears the original lyrics did not include “the” before Robert E. Lee and the fact that Levon Helm comments in his autobiography the song was intended to have Lee “come out with all due respect,” makes it likely this lyric refers to the man.

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