December 12, 2020

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Of late, I’ve been listening to The Band and learning a lot about Levon Helm, the drummer (really, multi-instrumentalist) and singer for the same. I’ve always liked The Band, whose music I first encountered through friends a bit older than me. On summer evenings, sitting around at friends’ apartments or on their porches, it was not uncommon for one or more of us to grab acoustic guitars and play “The Weight.” It remains one of my favorite songs to play. The harmony in the chorus, the way one vocal of “…you put the load right on me” chases the other, along with Helm’s drumming and singing drag you in and keep you there. The descending chord progression in the chorus adds an element of gravitas to the song, perhaps a bit more than some of the verses deserve.

But I don’t want to talk about “The Weight.” I want to talk about another song by The Band, one which could benefit from a solid explication. I want to talk about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” As a southerner, and, like Helm, a fellow Arkansan, songs with “Dixie” in the title often make me tense. As I’ve noted before, the southern states seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery, which they made clear at the time but which many subsequent southerners fail to admit. In short, Lincoln had every right to kick my ancestor’s asses to preserve the Union. And the Jim Crow era was just further evidence of the deep-seated racism that has long been a part of the culture of a part of the country I, for many reasons, love.

So, if “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an apologia of slavery, a nostalgic longing for the “Old South,” or anything of that sort, I can’t enjoy it. Fortunately, it’s nothing of the sort, which I hope, here, to explain.

Most song lyrics divide neatly into two categories borrowed from the study of poetry: narrative and lyric. The first tells a story. The second describes a feeling or state of mind. The fact that we call the words of songs “lyrics” should be a clue that the majority of them fall into the poetic category with the same name. Which, indeed, they do. Many songs contain some narrative elements while still being, primarily, lyrics. Such is the case with the song I’m discussing here. There’s a bit of narrative and some historical connections, but the bulk of the lyrics evoke an emotional response in the heart of the narrator, Virgil Cane:

Virgil Caine is the name,
And I served on the Danville train.
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came,
And tore up the tracks again.

First Verse, lines 1-4

The narrator’s name evokes both Virgil, the poet who is our guide through Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and, despite the spelling, the first murderer, Cane, in the Old Testament. Virgil’s way of introducing himself is both assertive and characteristically southern (i.e. starting with his name and adding “is the name” afterward, rather than the more direct “I am Virgil Caine”). The setting is made clear in the second and third lines. Danville, Virginia was “a major center of Confederate activity during the Civil War.” And “Stoneman” refers to Union Cavalry General (and, later, Governor of California) George Stoneman who did, in fact, tear up southern train tracks in order to disrupt Confederate supply lines.

So we are in Virginia, right after the US Civil War. And Virgil is our guide through the hell of the post-war south. The historical moment is quite precisely indicated in the latter half of the first verse:

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.

First Verse, lines 5-7

Thus, the setting is the winter of 1865 into the spring of 1866, when the fall of Richmond, Virginia ended the war. One can imagine that Robbie Robertson, guitarist and chief lyricist for The Band, must have recently perused a history of the Civil War when he penned these lines. I can imagine some interpreting that last line as an indication of lost-cause nostalgia. But I take from it that the events of song are being recollected, by Virgil, from a point further in the future. These are, after all, given how memory works, the sorts of things that would make a lasting impression. Perhaps Virgil is an old man as he recalls these events, narrating them to the implied audience (which includes, of course, us).

Our point-of-view characters doesn’t appear to have had an active role in the conflict, but his brother explicitly did:

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

Third Verse, lines 1-6

This is the best set of lines if you want to read the lyrics contra to my own reading. From the first two lines, we understand that Virgil is a farmer. He’s a working man, not a person in any position of authority or power. And he is, at least, a second generation farmer. The brother, who “took a rebel stand” dies in the war, killed by a Union soldier. But how to take this depends upon how you read line three. Is “And like my brother above me” an indication that Virgil’s older brother was, like Virgil and his father, also a farmer? Or is he “like” his brother in that they both “took a rebel stand”?

Despite the potential ambiguity, I see Virgil, here, as pointing out the connection to the land that he, his sibling, and his father share. If the point were that Virgil and his unnamed brother shared political sentiments, the “Who” that starts line four could just as easily have been a “We.” Instead, I see line three as a digression–a bit more detail about the brother.

But this doesn’t mean that Virgil can be seen as some sort of misplaced fan of the Union. Stoneman’s troops–and Sherman’s–“tore hell,” as we say here, through southern cities in a deliberate and effective effort to demoralize the southern populace in general–not just Confederate soldiers–into abandoning their misguided, traitorous war efforts. These Union tactics seem, to Virgil, a simple man, unfair, as he makes clear:

You take what you need and you leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best

Verse 2, Lines 7-8.

But, far from promising revenge, Virgil admits that his family–and, by extension, the south–have been soundly beaten.

I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

Verse 3, Lines 7-8

Virgil, a farmer and former railroad worker, isn’t looking ahead to a future where the south will rise up against the north. He’s a defeated southerner licking his wounds, reflecting on the past. He depicts himself not as an active participant in history. He is, rather, a victim of machinations far above his pay grade. And he recalls these events of his youth with a fitting sense of loss, the emotion most clearly conveyed by the lyrics, of this lyric, are meant to convey. He doesn’t lament the fall of the Confederacy, nor of some grand, southern “way of life” seen safely from the porch of a plantation house. Rather, he laments things closer to home: the death of a brother, the loss of a job, the destruction that is always part of war, no matter how just.

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