the night they drove old dixie down-be sure to read my brother’s comment at the end- i didn’t know that!

Meaning of song
The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Confederate soldier Virgil Caine “served on the Danville train,” the main supply line into the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is holding the line at the Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman’s forces “tore up the track again”. The siege lasted from June 1864 to April 1865, when both Petersburg and Richmond fell, and Lee’s troops were starving at the end (“We were hungry / Just barely alive”). Virgil relates and mourns the loss of his brother: “He was just eighteen, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave.”

Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (US edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners: “Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.”

Robertson claimed that he had the music to the song in his head but had no idea what it was to be about. “At some point [the concept] blurted out to me. Then I went and I did some research and I wrote the lyrics to the song.” Robertson continued, “When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, ‘Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.’ At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’ In Americana land, it’s a kind of a beautiful sadness.” [1]

[edit] Context within the album and The Band’s history
According to the liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band by Rob Bowman, the album, The Band, has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana.

Though never a major hit, “Dixie” was the centerpiece of The Band’s self-titled second album, and, along with “The Weight” from Music From Big Pink, remains one of the songs most identified with the group.

The Band frequently performed the song in concert, and it can be found on the group’s live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). It was also a highlight of their “farewell” concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976, and is featured in the documentary film about the concert, The Last Waltz, as well as the soundtrack album from the film. It was #245 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.[2]

The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz (1978). Since Robertson went to the record label and claimed that he wrote the music and lyrics, he has writing credits to the song (and most other songs by The Band, including “The Weight”). Helm, a native of Alabama, claims to have contributed significantly to the lyrics. In his 1993 book ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, Helm writes ‘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.'”

Levon Helm refuses to play the song and it has not been heard live since 1978 even though Helm holds concerts, which he calls “Midnight Rambles”, several times a month at his private residence in Woodstock, NY.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down lyrics
Songwriters: Robertson, Robbie;
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 singing
They went, “La, la, la”

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there go the 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

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “La, la, la”

Like my father before me, I will work the land
And 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

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, na”

The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, na”

One Reply to “the night they drove old dixie down-be sure to read my brother’s comment at the end- i didn’t know that!”

  1. John, Of course , one of my favorites , along with “King Harvest” : Last night,
    Ain’t no joke,
    My whole barn went up in smoke,
    My horse jethro , why he went mad,
    I can’t remember times being half this bad !

    I read an article years ago about RR writing Dixie. He was actually baby sitting when he sat down at the Piano and composed the song – He remembered having to do it “under his breath” so as not to wake the child. Don’t know why that strikes me as being ” instrumental” to the writing – maybe because of the somber and subdued demeanor of the song.
    As you know , Maggie has taken the ” Danville” train from Lynchburg on her travels to and from college in Virginia. I always sing that line to her as she boards: Till Stoneman’s Calvary came and tore up the tracks again!”

    I always laugh when I hear Joan Baez’s rendition – She substitutes ” Till “so much” calvary came! (Hee, Hee )

    Last But not least: Granny used to tell of our Great Great Uncle on Cooper Davis side of our family who was killed at Appomatox – the last skirmish as the Rebs retreated in that early spring campaign. R. Lee realized he was doomed -The train carrying supplies ( The Danville train. ) to the confederates had been seized by the Yanks Near Appomatox by none other than a young George Custer ! Thus effectively ending the war.( and of course, he got his due!) I know you remember Granny telling us how a rider delivered the letter to His wife as she came from the “out house” – Granny said it read: It is my melancholy duty to inform you ……… (It’s my understanding the letter still exists with the Davis family in New York)

    All this from a simple song with far reaching sentiment .

    I travel to Lynchburg this week for Maggie’s graduation. I will visit Appomatox( 15 mi) – I may take my guitar and play ” the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

    Thanks for the memory !



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: