‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ Needs No Redemption

“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard.”
–Abraham Lincoln

The fear when efforts were undertaken to strike anything that in any way could be construed however indirectly as being sympathetic to the Confederacy out of the public record was the slippery slope presented that may ultimately result in important pieces of art being mischaracterized and ultimately cancelled under false pretenses. Well ladies and gentlemen, we have officially reached that point.

For over five years Saving Country Music has been using the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” originally recorded by The Band as an example of how battling against Confederate references in art could go too far. Written by Canadian Robbie Robertson, sung by the universally-revered and outspoken progressive Levon Helm, and made into a pop hit in 1971 by folk singer and activist Joan Baez who took the song to #3 in the United States, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an iconic piece of Americana and music history.

Time named “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to their “All-Time 100 List of Greatest Songs.” It’s been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs the shaped the genre. Pitchfork called it the 41st best song of the 60’s, and Rolling Stone put it at #245 on their list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Beyond The Band and Joan Baez, the song has been covered by countless artists, from Johnny Cash, to The Allman Brothers, to soul artist Dobie Gray, to the Jerry Garcia Band.

And throughout that legacy, nobody has ever questioned the ethics or message of the song because it in no way is glorifying the Confederacy. It is telling a story from the perspective of a poor Southerner at the end of The Civil War who “is in defeat.” But all of a sudden the song is being presented as problematic—as we knew it eventually would be—and bereft of critical details of the song’s writing and legacy for context.

The impetus for the discussion is when 26-year-old Easy Eye Sound-signed singer and songwriter Early James from Alabama performed a version of the song on a tribute to the movie The Last Waltz that chronicles The Band’s final concert. The tribute took place Monday, August 3rd, and was hosted by fellow Easy Eye Sound artist Marcus King. Selecting “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to play, Early James chose to change the original lyrics of the song to include strong anti-Confederate sentiments.

Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand
Unlike the others below me, who took a rebel stand
Depraved and powered to enslave
I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
That monument won’t stand, no matter how much concrete

Early James changing the lyrics is not really where the issue arises. No different than any artist changing the lyrics to a song to either make it more germane to themselves or to the times, it falls well under the rules of artistic license for a live performance, and makes total sense in the current climate. If anything, Early James deserves to be applauded. Joan Baez inadvertently changed some of the lyrics to the song in her version, misunderstanding them from the original recording. And no different than a parody, performers have the right to express themselves however they choose, and to use a previously-written song as a template. Some may see Early’s effort as being in poor taste, but it’s not inherently problematic.

The issue is presenting the original lyrics to the song as problematic, which Early James and an article in Rolling Stone entitled “Can The Night That Drove Old Dixie Down Be Redeemed?” does. Writer Simon Vozick-Levinson calls it a “troubling requiem for the Confederate cause” and “a vehicle for a harmful, racist American myth,” but offers no real argument of why this would be the case. This is certainly a different opinion than what Rolling Stone shared about the song on their Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2011, calling it “moving,” and said it “evoked the interior struggle of someone trying to make sense of a lost cause,” and praising it as having a theme that paralleled the Vietnam War well, which was raging when the song was originally released in 1969.

Of course, the earlier opinion from Rolling Stone is the correct one, and the one most universally-recognized. Does anyone really believe that Joan Baez would sing something she though could in any way be considered “a vehicle for a harmful, racist American myth,” or that Levon Helm would sing a “troubling requiem for the Confederate cause,” or that Robbie Robertson would write something that could be characterized as such? But this isn’t just about intent. Of course, everyone can interpret songs differently. But it seems like very few were interpreting the song as racist, and those that are seem to be solely basing those opinions off of surface takes on a nuanced song. They see terms like “Dixie” or names like “Robert E. Lee,” and make assumptions about intent that are not born out in a greater assessment of the lyrics, or the context of the song’s writing, performance, or performers.

Robbie Robertson has told the story of how he wrote the song on many occasions. It was inspired after Robbie went to meet Levon Helm’s parents in Arkansas, who lived in a home on stilts. Later Levon Helm took Robertson to a library in Woodstock, NY so he could research the American Civil War. The story of poor Virgil Caine is told through the campaign of Union general George Stoneman, whose raids behind Confederate lines—and specifically the destruction of the railroad tracks in Danville, Virginia—are given credit for breaking the back of the Confederate army which was starving in the winter of 1865, unable to resupply.

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well

Does this sound like glorification? Robbie Robertson specifically addressed any concerns with the song in a SiriusXM interview in late 2019. “I’m sitting down at the piano writing a song, and something creeped out of me, and it was a story,” Robertson explains. “And I was writing a movie. I was writing a movie about a Southern family that lost in The Civil War, and from their side, but the story of that family. I was trying to write a song that Levon could sing better than anybody in the world. And that’s all it was. That’s what it meant to me—-this little movie, a perfect thing for him.”

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is quite literally the story about the defeat of the Confederacy, in no way glorifying its cause, or slavery, told from the perspective of a poor Southerner from Tennessee who would have not been in a position to own slaves, and due to conscription, would have been forced to fight in the Confederate army, or face imprisonment or execution. It is difficult to impossible to construe the song as racist, but the Rolling Stone article fails to go in depth about the content of the song, or how it was written, and doesn’t even mention the major hit Joan Baez had with it, robbing readers of the critical context with which a case of the song should be presented in.

It’s also understandable why some might find “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as problematic or offensive. It does mention “Dixie” in the title. It does reference Robert E. Lee, which some may find polarizing regardless of the context. But it is at least worth presenting the song within a proper context instead of assuming and assigning racist intent to it, and not allowing for any discourse on the matter by leaving out critical counterpoints.

Though diving into comments on social media can be a fool’s proposition, reading through them shows that the vast majority of Rolling Stone‘s own readers strongly disagree with their characterization of the song.

Always saw this song as a lament about the destruction caused by the rebellion and Virgil Cain’s realization that this widespread disillusion killed his brother and destroyed the lives of millions.

Personally I never thought of this song as confederate “anthem” and I don’t think changing the name will have any impact of the modern day civil rights movement. I always thought of this song as a ballad. Nothing more. Its not the Confederate Flag.

Mixed feelings about this. Seems appropriate for our times, yet there’s also something dangerous about bowdlerizing art.

The weird part about all of this is that the song is not necessarily hagiographic towards the confederacy. In fact, the verse that got the most change was the one where the speaker mourns his brother’s death. Southerners have no feelings, no contradictions, just mindless bigots?

The lyrics to this song are clearly spelt out as anti war and anti confederacy. These changes destroy any subtlety the original possessed. And for Rolling Stone to boil it down to a confederate anthem is woke baiting.

…and the sole comment in agreement on the Twitter thread:

Wow. They sang with such fervent emotion about their right to keep humans enslaved for capital gain. This really puts the sacrificial slaughter of our children by sending them school for the economy into perspective.

Also troubling was Early James’s proclamation, “I hope we piss off the right people by changing these words,” which he said before singing his edited version backed by the band of Marcus King. By “pissing off” people who may have taken offense to his take on the song, this would not work to break down racism, broaden perspectives, or open people’s minds to the continued challenges African Americans and other minorities face in the United States. Instead, it’s anger and a lack of nuance that sends people into the arms of extremist groups who can then exploit that anger and conscript new members—something that assigning racist intentions to clearly non-racist institutions such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” does on a regular basis. Rebuking the song could just as easily result in more racism than less.

Early James was just looking to express himself in this critical time for race in America, and using the template of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to do so is fine, if not commendable. But for either Early or Rolling Stone to insinuate the song had racist intentions to begin with is not only incorrect, it’s arguably counter-productive to the cause. Not everything that makes reference to the Confederacy is racist. The Civil War was an indelible part of American history that artists in whatever medium should be able to make reference to without fear of retribution as long as it’s not glorifying racism.

Furthermore, now that the slippery slope has slid into assigning racist intentions and messaging to a song that most of all was meant as anti-war, the next question is, what is next? Will The Band, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and Joan Baez be called racist for singing it? Similar to the attack on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which we knew was coming, it’s likely not a matter of “if,” but “when,” while few step up to offer context or nuance, fearing they will be labeled racist themselves.

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