Why Some Hear 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' As A Neo-Confederate Anthem
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When it comes to art identified with the lost cause of the Confederacy, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band, maybe pop culture's most celebrated and misunderstood contribution.
[tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
THE BAND [SINGING] Virgil Kane is the name, and I served on the Danville train, 'till Stoneman's cavalry came and pulled up the tracks again.
In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive. By May the 10th, Richmond had fell, It's a time I remember, oh so well.
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing, the night they drove old Dixie down. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 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.
THE BAND Back with my wife in Tennessee. When one day she called to me. "Virgil, quick come see, There goes Robert E. Lee! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On paper, these verses read as if lifted from the Lost Cause playbook, a nostalgic retelling of the end of the civil war, seen through the eyes of a downtrodden Southern farmer laden with grief but not a trace of white supremacy.
But the song is not what it seems, or at least 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 Do want to say before we start the song was kind of a scary song to play. And today's political climate, I guess. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Early James, a 27 year old Alabama-born country musician, speaking before performing at an annual star studded tribute concert for the Band, livestreamed in August.
EARLY JAMES I felt the need to revise somewhere to make it a little more palatable, and I hope we piss off the right people by changing those words. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Inspired by this summer's racial reckoning, James sang about toppling Confederate monuments. And here's how he recast the chorus to "The Night We Drove Old Dixie Down".
[to the tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
EARLY JAMES [SINGING] Time to remember, time to bid farewell [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE He's sang: "tonight we drive old dixie down". In Slate, pop critic Jack Hamilton wrote about the mixed messages in a song that is more and also less than it seems.
JACK HAMILTON Thanks so much for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so 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. You know, maybe it was an effort to kind of grok more, quote, authentic life experience than could be had in the suburbs.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I think that that's an accurate way of putting it. Woodstock is 1969, Altamont is at the end of 1969, and there is an idea in that kind of high sixties moment of popular music as a way back into a sort of authenticity. And certainly a group like The Band, even though they were mostly Canadian, were very, very interested in the roots of American music and this kind of mythic idea of the American past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which explains their association with Bob Dylan, who is on the same journey.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, The Band really come to prominence as the backup band for Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s. And certainly Dylan himself is very interested in these ideas of American history and sort of mythic Americana.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's also talk about what was going on politically. In '69, Washington, D.C., hosted the largest anti-war protest in U.S. 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 HAMILTON Yeah, and, you know, a lot of musicians saw their work as having a sort of 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 GLADSTONE Now, Joan Baez covered the song in 1971.
JOAN BAEZ [SINGING] Like my father before me, I'm a working man. and like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand. Well, he was just 18, proud and brave, but a yankee laid him in his grave [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm guessing that she didn't see the song is 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 HAMILTON Yeah, Joan Baez, obviously 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. And one of the aspects of that is its class ramifications and that the civil war was famously referred to by many people who fought in it as a rich man's war and 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. And 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. So I think that "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in the tradition of kind 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 sort of putting the mythology of the Confederacy to a different use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That said, you think "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is kind of a stupid song?
JACK HAMILTON You know, I don't know that, I'd go so far as stupid. I mean, I love the band. They are one of my favorite artists of all time, and I think that the performance of it is just exquisite, like so many band performances are. You know, it is beautiful musicianship. Levon Helm, who sings the lead vocal, is just a gorgeous singer. It 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, you know, it almost reads like somebody who is has a kind of encyclopædia deep level of civil war knowledge, which I think is true of Robbie Robertson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think there may be a generational issue here. I don't think that those of us who hummed along – 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 HAMILTON I think that that's true, and I think our kind of 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. And that has to do with a sea change in the sort of historiography of the civil war that had already started happening in the in the 1960s, but hadn't really trickled its way into popular consciousness yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that it may have something to do with the fact that African-Americans didn't have access to what was the quote unquote, mainstream cultural conversation and didn't have the means to influence it?
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, 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 kind of 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 sort of myth of Confederate virtue. And, you know, all of the things that comes along with the lost cause. And, you know, there had been critiques of this. I mean, 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, 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, Du Bois 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 Du Bois's work to really got a foothold in academic civil war historiography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's assume that the Canadian lead guitarist of the band and Robbie Robertson probably hadn't read W.E.B. Du Bois.
JACK HAMILTON Probably not. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE His character is Virgil Kane. He's poor. His brother was killed in the war. He chops wood and 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 HAMILTON Yeah, I love that. I love that line from some Coates. And it's actually and this is something I would offer up kind of in praise or defense of the song. I think the song musically is actually extremely complex and nuanced. You know, you mentioned that it does have these dirge like qualities to it. The chorus, on the other hand, is entirely major key.
THE BAND [SINGING] The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing. The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have this imagery of bells ringing and people singing like these are not images that we necessarily entirely equate with mourning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The bells were ringing and the people were singing, arguably because Dixie was defeated!
JACK HAMILTON Right -- yeah!
BROOKE GLADSTONE 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 HAMILTON 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. And I mean, 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, you know, audience and and composer and performer. Rolling Stone's interview with Early James after his revision of the song, his rewriting of it. He talks about that, you know, about how growing up in Alabama that this song was heard unambiguously as an anthem of, you know, 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 GLADSTONE I guess that's an argument for staying in your lane?
JACK HAMILTON No, I don't think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Robbie Robertson described on Sirius Radio in an interview how he came to write the song.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON 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 and his father, and 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 kind of things. And he said to me, I'll tell you right now, the south is going to rise again. And I got chills through me. And so 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 good sing better than anybody in the world.
JACK HAMILTON Which Levon does, you know -- Absolutely.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON That's all it was. [END CLIP]
JACK HAMILTON When a song becomes this popular and this well known, it loses a sense of, you know, strict ownership, I think, and it becomes something that can be repurposed. I mean, the Early James example is another example of that. Someone taking that song and rewriting it and, you know, repurposing it for a different context.
[tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
EARLY JAMES [SINGING] Like my father before me, who I never understand. Unlike the others below me who took a rebel stand. Depraved and tried to enslave, I think its time to lay a head in its grave. I swear by the earth beneath my feet, monument won't stand no matter how much concrete [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 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, you know?
JACK HAMILTON Right. The first line of the song is Virgil Kane is the name. You know, we're made very aware that this is a fictional character. You do lose that aspect certainly in the Early James version. And yet at the same time, I think there's a reason that he chooses to kind of 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, you know, either an unreliable narrator or an imperfect narrator has been lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is lost.
JACK HAMILTON Yes, exactly. You know, and it's become that this guy is a hero, which is not what I think Robbie Robertson intended.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So 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. And I just wonder, does a story about a Confederate grunt have a place among us anymore or is it more than that?
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I mean, 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 sort of war more broadly in the Vietnam War, specifically. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is written over 100 years after the surrender at Appomattox. It's written by a Canadian guy – like it's just so far removed in many ways. So, you know, the question then sort of becomes like, is there going to be, you know, if there is something analogous to the lost cause with Trump, you know, 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, you know, referencing it or somehow steeped in it? I hope not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jack Hamilton is Slate's pop critic, associate professor of American and Media Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll in the Racial Imagination.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. And our show was edited...by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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