Saturday, July 5, 2008


Having listened intently the past few days to the Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink (1968), today I found myself compelled to begin listening to the Band’s eponymous second album (released September 1969), the album that contains one of the Band’s most famous songs, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. A wonderfully dynamic, dramatic, and utterly compelling song, it was famously covered by Joan Baez, who had a hit single with the song about a year and a half after The Band's release. It was subsequently covered by Johnny Cash on his album John R. Cash (1975). In the context of the late 1960s and the Vietnam War, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," while set during the days after the end of the bloody American Civil War, was generally interpreted as a song having an anti-war sentiment, while also invoking the Biblical parable of Cain and Abel. Presumably, the song was an attempt to identify and overcome the tensions of an American population divided in its support for the Vietnam War, to speak to both groups in a way that also acknowledged their mutual sense of patriotism.

Like the Bible's Cain, the singer of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Virgil Caine (Cain?), is a farmer:

Virgil Caine [Cain?] 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 10th 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 Na, La, La, La, Na, Na . . .

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
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best


Like my father before me
I’m a workin’ man
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 [Cain?] Caine back up when he's in defeat


The key poetic figure in the song is, of course, Dixie. There are few popular songs in American history more controversial than "Dixie," a song both adored and despised. Improbably, "Dixie" is a song that, prior to the Civil War, received ovations from both abolitionist Republicans and proslavery Democrats. After the Southern succession, it was adopted by the Confederacy as its national anthem. The song was played at Jefferson Davis's inauguration, but Abraham Lincoln so loved the song that he had it played at his second inauguration.

According to Michael Jarrett, "Dixie" was introduced on the Broadway stage on 4 April 1859 by Daniel Emmett, the founder of the first professional blackface minstrel troupe, and was an instant hit. But, as Jarrett observes,

...the popularity of "Dixie" resulted from the song's basic slipperiness. It seemed eager to serve all sorts of agendas and capable of insinuating itself into a variety of contexts. . . . "Dixie" is far more redolent of meaning than it is explicity meaningful. It functions as a poetic image. Generations of Americans, nostalgically drawn to the idyllic scene it calls them to conjure, have revered it. And generations, enraged and offended by the antebellum stereotypes it asks them to celebrate, have reviled it. (27)

Hence, the power of Dixie is in its multivalency: inherently ambiguous, it is a sentimental anthem associated with the American South, but also, consequently, a symbol of racism. But rather than be stymied by the figure's inherent cultural ambiguity, Mike Jarrett thinks we ought to listen to the song "anew." He writes:

How about straight, as a song of exile? Heard this way, it echoes psalms of captivity found in the Old Testament and anticipates the lamentations that abound in blues and, especially, reggae. Or how about ironically, as a signifying song? "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton. Yeah, like hell I do!" (28)

The slippery multivalency of "Dixie" allowed Mickey Newbury to incorporate the song into his well-known medley, "An American Trilogy," a song that, beginning in 1972, Elvis began performing during his live concerts. A portmanteau song celebrating the diversity of America, Newbury's "An American Trilogy" is composed of three songs: "Dixie" (South), "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (North), and "All My Trials" (the individual citizen).

I raise these issues because today while listening to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," I wondered why Elvis had never covered the song. Certainly he was capable of singing it. Certainly he was capable of singing it well. Did he reject it because he perceived it as a song of amelioration, a song about mending fences, and hence too much associated with the moderate Left (i.e., Joan Baez)? I turned to Elvis's rendition of "An American Trilogy," thinking that this song might well have been his "answer" song to the Band's earlier song. Having watched the Band's rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" as performed in The Last Waltz (1978; filmed late 1976,)--available on struck me that there was a remarkable similarity between the orchestration and staging of The Last Waltz and the orchestration and staging of Elvis's Las Vegas shows, especially his arrangement of "An American Trilogy." In other words, the Band's performance of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in The Last Waltz was influenced by Elvis's earlier response to that very song, with his version of "An American Trilogy," also available on youtube.

No comments: