The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #272: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #272: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band.

I can remember watching American Bandstand on tv when I was a young boy growing up. The dancers on that show had a set criteria that they employed when it came to judging the merits of a song. That criteria was that “it had to have a good beat and be easy to dance to”. For a dance-oriented show like American Bandstand, it is no surprise that they leaned toward the type of songs that they did. However, in the grand musical universe, there are many different types of songs and differing ways of assessing them. Usually, there is some level of basic agreement about the nature of most songs; be it a great party song, like, “Shout: Pts. 1 & 2”, a funked-up Soul classic that gets you moving and groovin’ or, maybe the song is a slow, romantic ballad, meant to be shared, cheek to cheek, with that someone special. But, every now and again, a song comes along that defies categorization and resists judgement. An example of such a song is , “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band.

The Band consisted of singer, Robbie Robertson, drummer, Levon Helm, keyboardist, RIchard Manual, multi-instrumentalist, Garth Hudson and bassist, Rick Danko. All but, Helm, were Canadians. Normally, country of origin isn’t a factor in the quality of a song but, in the case of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, it is an essential ingredient in how the song came to be written in the first place. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of great awakenings for many people. Television was bringing the world together in ways never before experienced by ordinary people. The Vietnam War caused the attention of the world to shift to a relatively unknown part of the world (at least, to most Americans). For Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, he turned his gaze toward America and desired learning as much about its’ history as he could. So, he started researching about the great US Civil War. During his research, he discovered that many of the people near where Levon Helm grew up (in Arkansas) had been impacted by the actual Civil War, as well as, the aftermath of that war. So, he asked Helm if he could visit his home state. Helm agreed to act as tour guide. Robertson saw battlefields and heard stories of families torn apart because of the death of loved ones and/or the destruction of their properties. Robertson was moved by what he heard and put pen to paper and created a song about the experiences of the US Civil War from the point of view of a Confederate conscript named Virgil. The over-arching theme of the song is one of suffering and regret, on the part of Virgil. The price of war was extremely high for the character of Virgil and the payoff of the fight never seemed to materialize, either.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has been hailed by music critics as being a “musical masterpiece that showed the human side of history better than any song, ever.” There is no questioning the emotion on display when Levon Helm belts this song out. As the sole American in the band, there was never a doubt who would play the part of Virgil. There is a passion in his voice that comes from living the History of which he is singing. When you get to see “The Band” perform the song live, there is, also, no questioning the musicianship on display, the calibre of the writing and storytelling involved in the lyrics nor, the rousing nature of the entire piece. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song that plays like an anthem…..and, that is where the contentious nature of judging the merits of a song becomes tricky.

When Robertson wrote the song, he claims to have done so as a show of respect for his bandmate, Levon Helm, and, as an acknowledgement of the suffering Helm’s family had endured those many years ago. Robertson claims that his intentions with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were never political. That may be so but, in the aftermath of the song’s release, three very political points of view emerged that all lay claim to the song.

First of all, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was released in an atmosphere in America that was decidedly anti-war. So, naturally, there were many people who interpreted the song as being an anti-war message from “The Band”. Those who fall into this camp discount the fact that the song focuses on a Confederate soldier and point out that that soldier and his family endured many hardships and lost so much that, surely, the point of the song is that the concept of “War” is a destructive one. The price paid by ordinary citizens conscripted against their will, is far too high. The song must be an ode to peace as the antidote to the devastating nature of war.

A second group that laid claim to the song as being their own were those people who still hold the fervent belief that “the South will, one day, rise again”. To those people, with their Confederate roots, this song is an anthem that speaks to a tragedy that befell their entire culture. The respectful nature of how the character of Virgil is portrayed has served as inspiration to those who feel aggrieved by History’s judgement. There are whole generations who have grown up in the southern United States, for whom, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Sweet Home, Alabama” play like hymns. To them, these are no mere songs to sing and dance to. Instead, they feel as though Robertson peered inside their souls as he crafted his lyrics. Because of this song, many Southerners felt fully and truly seen.

The third group who have weighed in on this song and passed severe judgement are those who view “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down” as being supportive of a lifestyle and a culture that oppressed generations of blacks via slavery. These people call Robertson and The Band out as “Confederate Apologists”. Some people who fall into this third category have actually taken the lyrics and tweaked them to reflect a less-tolerant and flattering portrayal of the southern Confederacy. The debates rage, even as I write these words.

Is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a respectful ode to friendship, as Robertson claims? Is it an anti-war song, a Confederate anthem or a racist piece of music that ignores so many who endured systemic oppression at the hands of those the song intended to glorify?

I guess the answer lay in the nature of our own perceptions. We tend to bring our inherent biases to our own judgements regarding history. When History reveals certain events to be not as we imagined, are we duty-bound to revise our assessments? That is a question that bears examination in Canada, for instance, as we learn more about the horror of Residential Schools and the part that some of the Fathers of our Confederation had to play in that happening. In the U.S., the arguments over the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in schools remains a topic of much contention at the moment I write these words.

How we end up judging songs steeped in History such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is nebulous. From a purely music point of view, it is a heckuva song and a wonderfully-told story. But, it is almost impossible to keep separate the historical implications from the musical ones when this song stirs up so many conflicting, heartfelt emotions. I guess how you view “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” depends upon your take on the History in question. If you care to make that sort of comment below, go for it.

For now, here is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by “The Band”, from their famous movie/musical, “The Last Waltz”. Enjoy. Contemplate. Judge, even, if the mood strikes.

The link to the video for the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Band, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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