Brooke Gladstone: This week marks the six-month anniversary of January 6, the day protesters broke into the Capitol.
Speaker 1: It's not just that they broke into the Capitol, they were screaming that they wanted to kill Nancy Pelosi and the vice president. They were brutalizing Capitol police officers. They were carrying Confederate flags. It really is a window into something very dark in this nation that I think is scary beyond just the events of January 6.
Brooke: It's been noted that Trump's Big Lie and the violence it produced is reminiscent of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a potent narrative of grievance after the Civil War recasting the South's stand as heroic and patriotic. Undergirded by racism, the Lost Cause apologia would stymie Reconstruction, justify decades of lynching, and throughout the South, prove as impossible to uproot as Kudzu.
When it comes to art identified with the Lost Cause, the silent film, The Birth of a Nation, directed in 1915 by D. W. Griffith is probably the most famous, but the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band may be pop culture's most celebrated and misunderstood the contribution.
The song is rock and roll canon, listed as one of the best of all time by Time Magazine and Rolling Stone despite its charged subject matter.
On paper, these verses read as if lifted from the Lost Cause playbook, a nostalgic retelling of the end of the war seen through the eyes of a downtrodden Southern farmer, laden with grief but not a trace of white supremacy. The song isn't what it seems, or what it seemed when it was first loosed upon the world. The Band's lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, hadn't logged much time in the South when he penned The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in 1969, but in the ensuing decades, some have claimed it as a Neo-Confederate anthem.
Early James: I do want to say before we start the song, this is a scary song to play in today's political climate.
Brooke: That's Early James, a 28-year-old Alabama-born country musician speaking before performing at an annual star-studded tribute concert for The Band live-streamed in August.
Early: I felt the need to revise some lyrics to make it a little more palatable, and I hope we piss off the right people by changing those words.
Brooke: Inspired by last summer's racial reckoning, James sang about toppling Confederate monuments. Here's how he changed the chorus to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. He sang Tonight We Drive Old Dixie Down.
In January, we spoke to pop critic, Jack Hamilton, who wrote an article to Slate about the missed messages in the song that is more and also less than it seems.
Jack Hamilton: Thanks so much for having me, Brooke.
Brooke: The song came out in the fall of '69. That was a big-time for folky, rootsy, bluesy type music. Creedence Clearwater Revival released Proud Mary and Bad Moon Rising and Born on the Bayou that same year. Maybe it was an effort to grok more "authentic life experience" than could be had in the suburbs.
Jack: Yes. I think that that's an accurate way of putting it. Woodstock is 1969. Altamont is at the end of 1969. There is an idea in that high '60s moment of popular music as a way back into authenticity. Certainly, a group like The Band, even though they were mostly Canadian, were very, very interested in the roots of American music and this mythic idea of the American past.
Brooke: Which explains their association with Bob Dylan, who is on the same journey.
Jack: Yes. The Band really come to prominence as the backup band for Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. Certainly, Dylan himself is very interested in these ideas of American history and mythic Americana.
Brooke: Let's also talk about what was going on politically. In '69, Washington DC hosted the largest anti-war protest in US history in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in '68. President Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act.
Jack: A lot of musicians saw their work as having a political resonance. There certainly was a big linkage in this era of the popular music of the day as being a soundtrack to certain activist movements.
Brooke: Now, Joan Baez covered the song in 1971.
I'm guessing that she didn't see the song as mourning the Confederacy, but as an expression of class consciousness, and as you note in your piece, perhaps a protest against the conscription of poor and marginalized young men into fighting a war, the Vietnam War, that affluent people could get out of.
Jack: Joan Baez, obviously, is someone who is iconically associated with various protest movements of the 1960s, both the civil rights movement and also the anti-war movement. I do think that Baez probably heard in the song the idea of a young man being conscripted into this war machine and the devastation that is wrought by that. The Civil War in American history is the first real modern war that America fights. One of the aspects of that is its class ramifications.
The Civil War was famously referred to by many people who fought in it as a rich man's war in a poor man's fight. You could buy your way out of military service if you were an upper-class person in the 19th century, on both sides, I believe. This is something that absolutely comes up in the Vietnam era. We could name many prominent United States politicians who got out of serving in Vietnam because they were basically connected.
I think that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in the tradition of fictions of the Confederacy, is drastically different than something like Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind which are coming out of a very different historical moment that are putting the mythology of the Confederacy to a different use.
Brooke: That said, you think The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is a stupid song?
Jack: [laughs] I don't know that I'd go so far as stupid. I love The Band. They are one of my favorite artists of all time. I think that the performance of it is just exquisite like so many band performances are. It's beautiful musicianship. Levon Helm, who sings the lead vocal is just a gorgeous singer, gives a really great performance, but I do think the song has become a bit overrated. It has a lot of hallmarks of overwrought historical fiction. It's got a lot of cloying specificity, in terms of-- It almost reads someone who has an encyclopedia deep level of the Civil War knowledge, which I think is true of Robbie Robertson.
Brooke: I think there might be a generational issue here. I don't think that those of us who hummed along, I was 13 or 14 when it came out, I was a junior high school protester and I picketed for the rights of Mexican immigrant laborers, I don't think we saw the Civil War back then as living history the way that we do now.
Jack: I think that that's true. Our collective memory and our collective interpretation of the events of the Civil War in 2020, or 2021 is drastically different than where it was in 1969. That has to do with a sea change in the historiography of the Civil War that had already started happening in the 1960s but hadn't really trickled its way into popular consciousness yet.
Brooke: Do you think that it may have something to do with the fact that African Americans didn't have access to what was the "mainstream cultural conversation" and didn't have the means to influence it?
Jack: Yes, I think that that's absolutely true. By the mid-20th century, telling the history of the Civil War and its aftermath had become really the province of a cadre of Southern white historians who were very, very invested in the Lost Cause narrative, in the idea that reconstruction had been a failure, reinvigoration of the myth of Confederate virtue, and all of the things that comes along with the Lost Cause.
There had been critiques of this. One of the most famous is, in 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois published a massive book called Black Reconstruction in America. One of the most famous formulations he puts forward is this idea that the function of white supremacy is to consolidate the power of the ruling class. The ruling class can forge alliances with the white working class that would have normally been outside of the white working class's particular class interests that basically prohibited solidarity between Black and white workers.
This is now one of the most influential books of American history probably ever written, but at the time, Dubois was seen as a radical, someone who was not in the club of the people who were tasked with telling the history of the Civil War, so it takes decades for Dubois's work to really get a foothold in academic Civil War historiography.
Brooke: Let's assume that the Canadian lead guitarist of the band, and Robbie Robertson probably hadn't read W.E.B. Du Bois.
Jack: Probably not.
Brooke: His character is Virgil Kane. He's poor. His brother was killed in the war. He chops wood to make a living and the song itself has a dirge-like quality. You quote Ta-Nehisi Coates saying that the song is just Pharaoh singing the blues.
Jack: Yes. I love that line from Coates. This is something I would offer up in praise or defense of the song. I think the song musically is actually extremely complex and nuanced. You mentioned that it does have these dirge-like qualities to it. The chorus, on the other hand, is entirely major key.
You have this imagery of bells ringing and full singing, these are not images that we necessarily entirely equate with mourning.
Brooke: The bells were ringing, and the people were singing, arguably, because Dixie was defeated. Virgil Kane suffered, but what he describes could be seen as a major chord event in a very dirge-like episode of American history.
Jack: Are these voices singing recently liberated formerly enslaved people? There's a lot of dimensions that you could potentially pull out of this song. I don't think it's a Neo-Confederate song at all. I do think that there's a population of people who hear it that way, and I think that that's a mishearing of the song, but songs never really belong entirely to the person who writes them or the person who performs them. There's always this very complex negotiation between audience and composer and performer.
Rolling Stones interview with Early James after his revision of the song, his really rewriting of it, he talks about that, about how growing up in Alabama that this song was heard unambiguously as an anthem of Neo-Confederate sentiment and Lost Cause celebration. Is that entirely Robbie Robertson's fault? Absolutely not. He's only got so much agency over how people hear it.
Brooke: I guess that's an argument for staying in your lane?
Jack: [laughs] No, I don't think so.
Brooke: Robbie Robertson described on Sirius Radio in an interview, how he came to write the song.
Robbie Robertson: I went from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta. It was bam. You would go to the restroom and one said "Colored", and one said, "White". It was crazy. Now while I was there, Levon took me over to meet his parents. His father, he was talking about his growing up and being a cotton farmer, that after the Civil War and everything, they had to change, and they had to accommodate these things. He said to me, "I'll tell you right now the South is going to rise again." I got chills through me.
Years later, I'm sitting down at the piano, and something creeped out of me and it was a movie about a southern family in the Civil War from their side, that story of that family, trying to write a song that I thought Levon could sing better than anybody in the world.
Jack: Which Levon does, [laughs] absolutely.
Robbie: That's all it was.
Jack: When a song becomes this popular and this well-known, it loses a sense of strict ownership, I think, and it becomes something that can be repurposed. The Early James example is another example of that, someone taking the song, rewriting it, and repurposing it for a different context.
Brooke: After reading your piece, I was really primed for the Early James Version, but I like songs with unreliable narrators. I think that's why I'm such a fan of Randy Newman.
Jack: The first line of the song is, "Virgil Kane is the name." [laughs] We're made very aware that this is a fictional character. You do lose that aspect, certainly in the Early James Version. Yet at the same time, I think there's a reason that he chooses to sacrifice that which is the fact that I think that in his experience, this is a song where that aspect, the idea that this is either an unreliable narrator or an imperfect narrator has been lost, exactly. It's become that this guy is a hero, which is not what I think Robbie Robertson intended.
Brooke: We are in a time of heightened consciousness about the impact of history, and the likely creation of a new Lost Cause myth about a stolen election. I just wonder, does a story about a Confederate grunt have a place among us anymore, or is it more than that?
Jack: That's a great question. The context of this song is the Vietnam War, using the metaphor of this one Confederate soldier and his experience to make a statement about war more broadly in the Vietnam War, specifically. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is written over a hundred years after the surrender at Appomattox. It's written by a Canadian guy. It's just so far removed in many ways.
The question then becomes, if there is something analogous to the Lost Cause with Trump, what's that going to look like a hundred years from now down the line? Are people still going to be making art that is referencing it or somehow steeped in it? I hope not. [laughs]
Brooke: Thank you very much.
Jack: Yes. Thank you.
Brooke: Jack Hamilton is Slate's pop critic, associate professor of American and Media Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. Thanks for tuning into the pod extra. Don't forget to check out the big show this weekend in which we look back at our year-long investigation into militia communications that helped uncover the Oath Keeper conspiracy on January 6.
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