Meaning of the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Uploaded by on Jan 19, 2010

From the 1978 film ‘The Last Waltz’

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 tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well,

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, when all the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na,

Back with my wife in Tennessee, When one day she called to me,
Said “Virgil, quick, come and see, there goes 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, when all the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na,

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,
And 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, when all the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and all the people were singin’. They went,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Na, Na, Na,


The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

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“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Single by The Band
from the album The Band
A-side Up on Cripple Creek
Released September 22, 1969
Recorded 1969
Genre Roots rock, Southern rock, Americana
Length 3:33
Label Capitol
Writer(s) Robbie Robertson
Producer John Simon

The Band also released a live album named for and featuring the song.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song written by Canadian musician Robbie Robertson, first recorded by The Band in 1969 and released on their self-titled second album. Joan Baez‘ cover of the song was a top-five chart hit in late 1971.



[edit] Meaning of song

Confederate use of rail during the Siege of Petersburg.

The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and the suffering of the South.[1] Dixie is a nickname for the Southern Confederate states. Confederate soldier Virgil Caine “served on the Danville train” (the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a main supply line into the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia from Danville, Virginia, and by connection, the rest of the South). Union cavalry regularly tore up Confederate rail lines to prevent the movement of men and material to the front where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman‘s forces “tore up the track again”.

The song’s lyric refers to conditions in the Southern states in the winter of early 1865 (“We were hungry / Just barely alive”); the Confederacy is starving and on the verge of defeat. Reference is made to the date May 10, 1865, by which time the Confederate capital of Richmond had long since fallen (in April); May 10 marked the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the definitive end of the Confederacy.

There is some poetic license in the song’s dates and events, for instance the reference to Virgil Caine being home with his wife in Tennessee and seeing Robert E. Lee (Later performances, including the Joan Baez recording and some live versions by The Band themselves, added “the” before “Robert E. Lee”, making it seem to relate to the post-war Mississippi riverboat paddlewheeler the Robert E. Lee (steamboat), and not the person, passing by).[2] Virgil also relates and mourns the loss of his brother: “He was just eighteen, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave”.

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.[3]

[edit] Context within the album and The Band’s history

According to Rob Bowman’s liner notes to the 2000 reissue of The Band’s second album, The Band, it 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 record, 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.[4]

Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the Sixties.[5] The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” and Time Magazine’s All-Time 100.[6][7]

The last time the song was performed by Levon Helm, The Band’s lead singer, was in The Last Waltz (1976). Helm, a native of Arkansas, has stated that he assisted in the research for the lyrics.[4] 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.”

Helm refused to play the song after 1976 even though he held concerts, which he called “Midnight Rambles”, several times a month at his private residence in Woodstock, New York.

[edit] Reception

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.

[edit] Covers of the song

The most successful English-language cover of the song was a version by Joan Baez released in 1971, which peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US in October that year and spent five weeks atop the easy listening chart.[8] Baez’s version made some changes to the song lyric; The second line “Till Stoneman’s cavalry came”. Baez sings “Till so much cavalry came”. She also changed “May the tenth” to “I took the train”. In addition, the line “like my father before me, I will work the land” was changed to “like my father before me, I’m a working man”, changing the narrator from a farmer to a laborer. In the last verse she changed “the mud below my feet” to “the blood below my feet”. Baez later told Rolling Stones Kurt Loder that she initially learned the song by listening to the recording on the Band’s album, and had never seen the printed lyrics at the time she recorded it, and thus sang the lyrics as she’d (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson.[9] The song became the highest charting U.S. single of Baez’ career, and has remained a staple of her concert set list, from that point forward.

Johnny Cash covered the song on his 1975 album John R. Cash. Old-time musician Jimmy Arnold recorded the song on his album “Southern Soul,” which was composed of songs associated with the Southern side of the Civil War. Don Rich and the Buckaroos covered the track. Steve Young recorded the song on his 1975 album Honky Tonk Man. The song also appears on the album Whose Garden Was This by John Denver, released in 1970. It was also included in his 2001 release, John Denver The Greatest Collection. The Allman Brothers Band covered the song for the 2007 album Endless Highway: The Music of The Band. The Jerry Garcia Band also covered the song live for over 20 years and it is still held as a fan favorite today.

In 1972, a cover of the song called “Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb” (translation: “On the Day that Conny Kramer Died”) was a number-one hit in West Germany for singer Juliane Werding. For this version, the lyrics were not translated but rather changed completely to an anti-drug anthem about a young man dying because of his drug addiction – an extremely hot topic in that year, when heroin was making the first big inroads in Germany. In 1986, the German band Die Goldenen Zitronen made a parody version of this song with the title “Am Tag als Thomas Anders starb” (“On the Day that Thomas Anders Died”).

A fairly large-scale orchestrated version of the song appears on the little-known 1971 concept album California ’99 (ABC Records, ABC728) by composer/arranger/producer Jimmie Haskell, with lead vocal by Jimmy Witherspoon.

Irish folk musician Derek Warfield and his new band the Young Wolfe Tones, included a version of the song on their 2008 album “The Night Is Young”.

Charlie Daniels Band, Big Country, Dave Brockie, Richie Havens, Black Crowes and Zac Brown Band have included covers on live albums.

[edit] Use in Film

The Band’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was used in the 1977 film “The Shadow of Chikara” (also titled “Curse Of Demon Mountain” and several other titles).[citation needed]

[edit] Personnel on The Band version

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  • Deborah paschall  On December 19, 2017 at 11:10 am

    I love this song. I have the original 45 by Joan baez. I wish the south would rise again. Its terrible to take down all the conferate statues. There were 2 sides to civil war. Just like a coin has 2 sides. Should we do away with movies like gone with the wind and everything connected to the south. I think not. Or should we just teach one side of civil war in our schools. I think not. Should we do away all parks in south like Shiloh and fort donelson. I think not. The real racists are the people conplaining today about history that is a part of all lives. The ones who want the statues removed are the trouble makers provoking people who know that a civil war happened and there was 2 sides to it. Maybe they would like it if we rewrote the history of the bible. Trying rewrote the civil war and history surrounding it by removing statues that have been here for ever makes about as much sense as trying rewrite the bible. Leave the history of the civil war alone. Its a part of America just like everything else. Just like 911 just like Susan b Anthony Kennedy and Luther assinatations. Don’t we have enough unrest with north Korea and the middle east without bringing it home to America complaining about the history of the civil war. Best to remember were in an active war now. The people who are trying rewrite history are the racists. A man has a flag and another man comes after him with flametorch. I would be more scared man with flametorch then the man with the flag. Gezz you racists who are complaining about the statues and names of places need get a grip on reality. Your the racists. Maybe we should do away 911 memorial to please those people of that race who hijacked planes who live Maoist us today. You can’t change history by getting rid of statues or books songs or movies just like players taking a knee football games. Their getting paid good money from people who go enjoy game not have deal politics. If they don’t like the song they shouldn’t be playing and getting paid. They should be made leave America if they don’t like the traditions guess they have a problem with apple pie too. Get off the team if your not a player who knows the game isn’t a place for your politics and opinions. People shouldn’t go games until players respect the traditions. God bless America and all its history. Amen

    • Jadir  On March 6, 2018 at 8:56 pm

      If you really believe in God then this all doesn´t matter as ALL who believe in him will be together in paradise! The rest is all distraction and a waste of our fleeting moments on this earth. God bless all humankind – I thank God he is not nationalist or patriotic to one nation but open to every accepting person!. Amen

    • Southern Pride  On May 22, 2020 at 6:44 am

      I find it disgusting that I cannot buy a Confederate flag on Amazon. It IS HISTORY, and IT DID HAPPEN. I am from SC and know this war wasn’t soley about slavery, it was about jealousy of the thriving south, industrialist and wealth. We had cash crops: tobacco, soybeans, cotton and corn while the snowbound northerners had NO cash crops. We had fine things and beautiful southern plantations with mansions. It was jealousy. Slavery had gone on, in every color, for many years before this. White Celtic slaves built the first Catholic churches, for instance. People who want to pretend the Civil War never happened are reflecting sheer ignorance.

      • Unrepentant  On June 27, 2020 at 1:00 pm

        Seems to me it’s time for a little rebellion 2.0. NASCAR has banned the Rebel Flag. What if somebody shows up with three flags – a red one, a stars one, & a bars one. Then 3 people stand in line waving their flags. Not a Rebel Flag so what are they going to do about it. Wearing 3 patches on your clothing could serve the same function.

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