Robbie Robertson Discusses Writing The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ Oct 22, 2019

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Belle Montgomery

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Robbie Robertson was recently interviewed by John Fugelsang during a visit to SiriusXM. Robertson spoke about the meaning behind The Band’s classic song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
One of several highlights on The Band’s 1969 self-titled sophomore album, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was sung by drummer Levon Helm. Robertson recounts visiting Helm’s father Jasper Diamond Helm in rural Arkansas, which later helped inform the subject matter of the song. The guitarist also explains how his ignorance of racism and segregation in the southern United States prior to experiencing it in person further influenced the lyrics.
The Band’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at the The Last Waltz in 1976 was the final live rendition played by Helm.
Listen to Robertson’s interview on SiriusXM below:...

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Belle Montgomery

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*Interesting that Levon Helm had a bit of a different version unless it was edited out in the interview clip:

In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire Helm wrote, "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."
 

byron ed

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I followed the links, I heard the interviews, but there was no explanation of what was meant by the phrases "the night they tore ole' Dixie down" or "they didn't have to take the very best."

Who was this "they" being blamed for the destruction of Richmond? It sure wasn't the Federals since it was the retreating Confederates that set the fires on their way out. So "Virgil Caine" and his folks are expressing grief over the war's being lost and Richmond's burning as if the Confederacy and its army had no culpabiity in that, as if their poor condition was caused only by the Union soldiers. Not only that, but the phrase "Virgil quick come see, there goes the Robert E. Lee" refers to a boat that had no connection to Confederate wartime service (other than a nameplate), so why would Virgil and his kin have some sort of emotional Lost Cause connection to it?

That's why it was so interesting that a liberal California girl would go on to make the Band's song a big hit, not realizing it was actually a Confederate apologist's lament, and seemingly naive that the Confederacy after all was founded on slavery -- nothing a liberal '60s civil rights songster should be lamenting over. Perhaps she was also naive to the song's Canadian provenance as well, it was not a heart-felt recollection of a legacy U.S. Southerner but -- as pointed out in these interviews -- an attempt to craft a song with a historical roots vibe, a music business decision as much as a heart-rending Southern ode.
 
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Belle Montgomery

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I followed the links, I heard the interviews, but there was no explanation of what was meant by the phrases "the night they tore ole' Dixie down" or "they didn't have to take the very best."

Who was this "they" being blamed for the destruction of Richmond? It sure wasn't the Federals since it was the retreating Confederates that set the fires on their way out. So "Virgil Caine" and his folks are expressing grief over the war's being lost and Richmond's burning as if the Confederacy and its army had no culpabiity in that, as if their poor condition was caused only by the Union soldiers. Not only that, but the phrase "Virgil quick come see, there goes the Robert E. Lee" refers to a boat that had no connection to Confederate wartime service (other than a nameplate), so why would Virgil and his kin have some sort of emotional Lost Cause connection to it?

That's why it was so interesting that a liberal California girl would go on to make the Band's song a big hit, not realizing it was actually a Confederate apologist's lament, and seemingly naive that the Confederacy after all was founded on slavery -- nothing a liberal '60s civil rights songster should be lamenting over. Perhaps she was also naive to the song's Canadian provenance as well, it was not a heart-felt recollection of a legacy U.S. Southerner but -- as pointed out in these interviews -- an attempt to craft a song with a historical roots vibe, a music business decision as much as a heart-rendering Southern ode.
It's "drove" old Dixie down. However I believe "but they should never have taken the very best" refers to Virgil Caine's brother or aka Southern boy's lives. Biaz admitted she never read the original lyrics before recording her famous rendition when she sang "took a train to Richmond" (Tanya Tucker did the same) instead of the correct "by May the 10th Richmond had fell" but it's curious to me wouldn't April 10th have been more in touch with the story? Oh well...
 
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eeric

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These are the lyrics from The Band website **, there is a word or two different from the recording(s) but not too important. "may 10th" and who burned Richmond are weird yes, but these dudes were not scholars LOL, particularly back then : )

A statement above of Levon saying 'they worked on it" I take to mean as in rehearsals etc. Robbie claimed authorship, and the rest of the members wrote very few memorable songs without Robbie, and vice versa I might add.

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
'Til 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,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singin'. They went
La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La,
Back with my wife in Tennessee, When one day she called to me,
"Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!"
Now I don't mind choppin' wood, and I don't care if the money's no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best. (Chorus)
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, 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. (Chorus and fade)

** The members did not contribute to this site as far as I know, its fan provided material but as close to 'official' as presently exists. Chords on this site can also be sometimes iffy....
 
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ErnieMac

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It's "drove" old Dixie down. However I believe "but they should never have taken the very best" refers to Virgil Caine's brother or aka Southern boy's lives. Biaz admitted she never read the original lyrics before recording her famous rendition when she sang "took a train to Richmond" (Tanya Tucker did the same) instead of the correct "by May the 10th Richmond had fell" but it's curious to me wouldn't April 10th have been more in touch with the story? Oh well...
Joan Baez misheard The Band's lyrics and had no familiarity with Stoneman's Raid. As a result she originally sang the second line as "Til some much cavalry came ...". She would use the correct lyrics in later renditions.
 

Belle Montgomery

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Joan Baez misheard The Band's lyrics and had no familiarity with Stoneman's Raid. As a result she originally sang the second line as "Til some much cavalry came ...". She would use the correct lyrics in later renditions.
Agreed...I believe othersdid the same considering artists (Tanya Tucker etc) were not that familiar with Civil war cavalry companies.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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I always assumed it was a story about plain grieving and '... never should have taken the very best ' referred to family members lost. I'm not defending what could be construed differently, the plaintive quality of the song always made me feel it was more mourning loss, not the Confederate cause.

The idea Richmond's fire was caused by Union troops is a little understandable when those famous images aren't generally explained, you know? They're kinda tossed in as war ruins- IMO it's a normal enough assumption, war/fire/ruins.Heck, remember running into what must be a popular question to ask Google " Which Union general burned Richmond ? " Early stubbornly stuck to the orders, destroy specific sites, Breckinridge foresaw a potential disaster for Richmond civilians and pretty much begged Early to re-think the decision. Breckinridge was right but bet even he couldn't predict what would happen when liquor barrels were rolled out to be destroyed. Alcohol, fire and general panic, what could go wrong?
 
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So all said and done, it seems that for most people this song derives its passion from the viewpoint of victims of war, not Lost Cause.

Certainly the minor-key musicality of this ballad is the appeal as much or more than the lyrics -- to note that apparently the music came first and the lyrics were patched in afterwards. And apparently this was done by people that weren't themselves especially knowledgeable about the American Civil War, and that wasn't their focus anyway. It was a Canadian songwriter going for the vibe. Case in point; for the various musicians that performed the song, the lyric "Robert E. Lee " refers to either the man or the boat. Only ACW mavens would obsess over that.

And furthermore for the various musicians that performed this song, if the "they" in the song (those that "drove Dixie down" and "took the very best") happened to be the Unions so be it. That's how a noted 1960s civil rights musician ended up seeming to be lamenting over the defeat of the Confederacy - a country uniquely founded on slavery. But let's cut some slack for that young (at the time) Californian, yes? She likely was just going for the vibe -- the emotion of a war victim -- naive as to how it could be interpreted.
 
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TnFed

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It's "drove" old Dixie down. However I believe "but they should never have taken the very best" refers to Virgil Caine's brother or aka Southern boy's lives. Biaz admitted she never read the original lyrics before recording her famous rendition when she sang "took a train to Richmond" (Tanya Tucker did the same) instead of the correct "by May the 10th Richmond had fell" but it's curious to me wouldn't April 10th have been more in touch with the story? Oh well...
I thought it had something to do with Davis being captured May 10.
 

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So all said and done, it seems that for most people this song derives its passion from the viewpoint of victims of war, not Lost Cause... She likely was just going for the vibe -- the emotion of a war victim -- naive as to how it could be interpreted.
Yes, that's how I've always seen this song. I'm a white southerner whose family was deeply involved in civil rights battles during the 1960s (born in 1951 in NC), so I don't have much leaning toward the Lost Cause movement. All the same, I grew up in a culture deeply marked by the human suffering of southerners who lived through that war. I remember when this album came out, and was grateful when Baez did a beautiful version of the song.

A. Roy
 
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