The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian-American roots rock group The Band in 1969 and released on their eponymous second album. Levon Helm provided the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the protagonist, a poor white Southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War, when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia. The song appeared at number 245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Joan Baez recorded a version of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971.

Then the concept came to him and he researched the subject with help from the Band’s drummer Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm wrote, “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.”

The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz. Helm refused to play the song afterwards. Although it has long been believed that the reason for Helm’s refusal to play the song was a dispute with Robertson over songwriting credits; according to Garth Hudson, the refusal was due to Helm’s dislike for Joan Baez’s version.

Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (U.S. 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. (notes from Wikipedia- donate if you can)

I first heard the song in 1971- the Joan Baez version. It wasn’t until years later that I came across the original when I watched the documentary by Scorcese, The Last Waltz in the mid-80s when I was living in Ballymena, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. When Banter was formed in the mid-90s in western Sydney, Big Geordie introduced his take on the song to the band and we performed it, off and on, for the few years he was part of the band. It wasn’t until 2015, when Banter re-formed after a decade+ hiatus that I picked the song up and started to perform it.

Levon Helm’s refusal, according to Garth Hudson, to play and sing the song because of his dislike of Baez’s version strikes me as odd. However, we can’t check with the source as, alas, Levon Helm is no longer with us.

The version set down here is probably situated somewhere between Baez and Helm. Johnny Cash recorded a version that is worth a listen.

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down

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