Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Meaning Of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

A friend, fellow blogger, moderate Baptist, dog lover, and companion in the study of human behavior sent me an email this afternoon:

Dear Mr. Sepulchre,
I heard the song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
I have never understood that song. I understand it has to do with the South losing the War of Northern Aggression. However....
The war did not end overnight.
And what does it mean "drove old Dixie down"
Can you explain this to me, you being a Reb?

Hugs, Dr. Liz

Dr. Liz is a Michigan native. Check out her blog, Zbeth Journal, for her daily routine, her minimalist book reviews, and the blogs of her two dogs, Blitzen and Lady Chica. Dr. Liz is probably one of the first women in the U.S. to get a doctorate in Sociology, and we sometimes meet at Fort Woof dog park to discuss the sociological theories of Max Weber (long story).

Dr. Liz, as a Yankee, can't be expected to understand the subtleties of a song like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". But deconstructing lyrics from The Band's 1969 hippie anthem is one of the many services provided by The Whited Sepulchre Outreach Ministry. Let's begin.

This is one of the great songs of the Lost Cause, a ballad whose words and tune could only have been written by a true Son Of The South, someone from the Cradle Of The Confederacy, someone like Robbie Robertson from.....(ahem) Canada.
Yep. The song was written by a Canadian. The Band's drummer, Levon Helm of Helena, Arkansas, got a songwriting credit for helping Robertson out with some of the history.

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 Danville - Richmond supply train was the lifeblood of the Confederate capital until the Union cavalry, led by General Stoneman, ripped up the tracks. This cut off Richmond, so the Confederate capital had to be moved to Danville, probably because all our trains happened to be on that end of the damaged tracks at the time. We weren't very well organized.

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-la-la

The song is about defeat. Being trampled into the dirt. At the time Robertson wrote this song the U.S. had not yet been kicked out of Viet Nam, and the South was the only American region to ever undergo a full-blown enemy occupation.
The north is full of people who say "soda" or "pop" instead of "Coke". Their states and cities sometimes need bailouts. Some of them root for New York teams in The World Series. Yankees say "you guys" instead of "y'all".
Dixie wasn't driven down in one night - that's poetic lisence. But if Yankees capture your capital, it's all over.

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

This is a troublesome verse. Virgil Caine is back with his wife in Tennessee, and his wife calls him to see Confederate General Robert E. Lee passing by. But Lee was never in Tennessee after the war. You can read various theories about what it all means by going to this discussion page on The Band's website.
The line about "I don't care if the money's no good" is an allusion to Confederate money after the government printed too much of it, a subject I've beaten to death elsewhere.

I've always wondered about the next line, "they never should have taken the very best".... Does "the very best" refer to Caine's brother's death in the next verse?
Did the Damn Yankees take everything the Caine's owned during the Reconstruction era?
Did Dr Liz's Michigan ancestors take Caine's wife at some point?

(My parents once lived near the empty field where Civil War Reenactors annually fight The Battle Of Clinton. Every year when my mother saw the Yankee army march into view, she wanted to run back home and bury her silverware in the back yard.)
I have no idea what that verse is supposed to mean.
Those Canadians are poetic, but vague.

The night they drove old Dixie down and 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

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

Like my father before me, like my brother before me....I hear it all the time. My father was a republican, my brother is a republican, so I'm a republican. My father was from the south, my brother fought for the south, so I'm going to fight for the south. Every tribal war in history (and they've all been tribal) was fought by people with the same general mindset.
And can we all agree that "raise a Caine" is a bad pun?

The night they drove old Dixie oown and 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

The night they drove old Dixie down and all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down and the people were singin', they went
Na-na-na na-na-na, na-na-na na-na-na, na-na-na-na

That's my interpretation of Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". The lyrics, combined with the bass line that descends over and over, have a vibe of hopeless defeat. Reading it as history is kind of like reading the book of Genesis for science. Great song, don't you think?

I hope this helps, Dr Liz.


Here's The Band doing the song in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz". Beautiful stuff.



I had no idea this was out there. The Black Crowes !



And now for something completely different ! ! Here's Joan Baez doing the song with some Muppets.

17 comments:

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

I enjoyed seeing Joan Baez singing with the muppets. I remember seeing this as a young adult and thinking that this did damage to her reputation as a serious singer song copyer.

Dr Ralph said...

TLG - nowadays performers have other methods to damage their reputations.

Call me an old hippie but I'll take Joan over Britney (for singing, anyway).

themanicgardener said...

About that second verse: I think you've got lots of the pieces but that treating them as pieces--i.e., reading each line as an individual unit--keeps those pieces from coming together. So I hear the last three lines--

"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."

--working together to say that Virgil doesn't mind leading a rough, hard, even poor life; everyone takes what they need, but no one should take more than that, and no one should ruin it all for everyone.

So I agree with your speculation that "the very best" "might refer to Caine's brother's death in the next verse," except that I think that's too narrow; he's referring not just to his own brother there, but to all the fine young men who died.

In a similar vein, I'd take issue with the idea that "the money's no good" refers to the devaluation of Confederate currency; that just seems too narrow to me. I've always assumed it meant "the pay is lousy," partly because it will then work with the rest of those lines towards a sort of collective meaning: that Virgil can take a lot and not complain, but there's a line the Yankees shouldn't have crossed--but did.

Curious what you think about all this.
--Kate

Kate said...

About that troublesome second verse: I think you've got lots of the pieces but that treating them as pieces--i.e., reading each line as an individual unit--keeps those pieces from coming together. So I hear the last three lines--

"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."

--working together to say that Virgil doesn't mind leading a rough, hard, even poor life; everyone takes what they need, but no one should take more than that, and no one should ruin it all for everyone.

So I agree with your speculation that "the very best" "might refer to Caine's brother's death in the next verse," except that I think that's too narrow; he's referring not just to his own brother there, but to all the fine young men who died.

In a similar vein, I'd take issue with the idea that "the money's no good" refers to the devaluation of Confederate currency; that just seems too narrow to me. I've always assumed it meant "the pay is lousy," partly because it will then work with the rest of those lines towards a sort of collective meaning: that Virgil can take a lot and not complain, but there's a line the Yankees shouldn't have crossed--but did.

Curious what you think about all this.
--Kate

Kate said...

About that troublesome second verse: I think you've got lots of the pieces but that treating them as pieces--i.e., reading each line as an individual unit--keeps those pieces from coming together. So I hear the last three lines--

"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."

--working together to say that Virgil doesn't mind leading a rough, hard, even poor life; everyone takes what they need, but no one should take more than that, and no one should ruin it all for everyone.

So I agree with your speculation that "the very best" "might refer to Caine's brother's death in the next verse," except that I think that's too narrow; he's referring not just to his own brother there, but to all the fine young men who died.

In a similar vein, I'd take issue with the idea that "the money's no good" refers to the devaluation of Confederate currency; that just seems too narrow to me. I've always assumed it meant "the pay is lousy," partly because it will then work with the rest of those lines towards a sort of collective meaning: that Virgil can take a lot and not complain, but there's a line the Yankees shouldn't have crossed--but did.

Curious what you think about all this.
--Kate

Anonymous said...

Your take on this song is incorrect. I am a born, bred and raised in the south southerner and I know what this song is about.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Anonymous,

In regard to your comment that "I am a born, bred and raised in the south southerner and I know what this song is about...."

I bet I can top you. I bet my part of the South made your part of the South look like Bangor, Maine.

Anonymous said...

Ok, here is the explanation for the second verse. "I don't mind choppin wood, and I don't care if the money's no good. You take what you need and leave the rest, but they should have never taken the very best." At this point in the song, the war is over the South has been defeated. Here is what that little part means. He doesn't mind being poor and his money worthless, but don't take away his (the south's) freedom and dignity. "Take what you need and leave the rest..." refers to how the North used no mercy and any means necessary to win and how they treated the South once defeated. Remember what the war was about to start with... individual state freedom and rights. In other words, you can defeat an enemy, but you don't have to kick them once they are defeated. The very best refers to a combination of pride, freedom and respect. The North was very inhumane to the South. The South was treated worst that a terrorist on foreign soil. Do some research on the tactics used by the North, if the history books haven't already swept it under the rug. In short the second verse means: I (the south) don't mind losing as long as I lose fair and am treated decently afterwards.

Anonymous said...

"Remember what the war was about to start with... individual state freedom and rights." What a pantload! Never mind basic human rights. You somehow want to justify slavery, and clear your conscience and claim that dirt poor southern farmers and laborers when to war because they were concerned the the Federal Government was getting trampling on states rights? When did they start reading the Federalist Papers? The only reason they went to war was that they were loyal to their neighbors/ family and they believed that freeing the slaves would have a devastating economic impact upon them personally.

Anonymous said...

The Robert E Lee was a big steamship that was built in 1866 and sailed the southern waters. It was named to honor the Confederate general. That's what his wife saw when he was back in Tennessee chopping wood and she called him to look at--not the general himself. The line in the recording clearly says THE Robert E Lee.

Anonymous said...

I think when the song writer wrote "but they should have never taken the very best" I think he was refering to General "Stone wall Jackson" as maybe he had been shot and they saw him coming back into camp. Jackson being the BEST.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I ment Robert E Lee. Not Stone wall.

Jeff said...

Yeah, THE Robert E Lee is a ship they're excited to see as it represented some of the best of the South.
"Take what you need and leave the rest" to me meant the theft of anything valuable by conquering and angry troops and later by carpet baggers.
Maybe that's too narrow, but fits nice. A conquering army in your towns and cities can't be imagined except by those who've been there, whether your Iraqi or Rebel.
We don't hear about the burning of the Southern cities, just like we don't here about the utter destruction of Fallujah, a city of 350,000 before the siege of 2004. Brutal beyond anything necessary.
Robertson nailed it, specially the dignity. I'm a Northerner.

Anonymous said...

My father was a republican so I therefore am a republican clearly implies a lack of understanding that the south was a democratic stronghold at the time of the civil war. In fact, the south remained a democratic strong hold until the civil acts was passed at which time most southerners changed their allegiance to the republican party (i.e., the party that supported the act) because frankly most southerners no longer supported the democratic policies of segregation that had earned them a bad name. Only the liberal and poor white southerners remained democrats after the act was passed. Too bad so few people today understand this historical fact.

Anonymous said...

It's a song and it is not math.

Virgil Kane is an old man at the time of the war. He served on the Danville train because he was recruited late in the war. He was married and a land owner but had no slaves. Now you see the first verse make sense...

Stoneman was humiliated at Chancellorsville and would have been a figure along the lines of Sheridan/Grant/Sherman if fortunes of war had not turned against him.

...tore up the tracks again in the winter of 65...we were hungry and just barely alive by May 10th (when we surrendered with J Davis in Georgia)...Richmond had fell (already) it was a time...

The night "we" drove old Dixie down and the bells were ringing out of fear due to the lack of civil authority in Richmond...the bells were calling the Yankees to come restore order...the people were singing "Dixie" but in a subdued voice....

Back with my wife in TN (she went crazy while I was away at war) so she was always saying stuff like...there goes Robert E Lee...I don't mind chopping wood (clearing land that has overgrown in the past couple of years) and I don't care if my savings are worthless...you take what you need (native American thought) but they should never have take the very best (his wife was abused sexually by northern soldiers)

Like his father before me, I will work the land (Virgil was oldest son and inherited the land, married and got caught up in the war) and like my baby brother before me who took a Rebel stand...he was just 18 (said by an older loving brother) proud and brave but a Yankee put him in his grave...I swear on the blood below my feet (his unnamed brother lies at his feet, in TN, which would be very unusual unless they were people of wealth, as most Rebels were buried close to where they fell. Virgil's baby brother died defending his brother's wife's honor)...you can't raise a Kane back up when he's been defeated'd

Anonymous said...

I think that the one line should read, "There goes THE Robert E Lee." The Robert E. Lee was a paddleboat on the Mississippi, but was not launched until 1866, the year after the war. Helm was from Arkansas, and the Mississippi is between Arkansas and Tennessee. I think the intent was that after the war, Virgil migrated to west Tennessee where his wife saw the boat on the river, recalling The Lost Cause.

Poke Salut & Corn Pone said...

except that Abraham Lincoln did NOT free all the slaves and there were yankee slave owners during the Civil War.