Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-2012), the only American in The Band, but I think most of his fans will agree that he had enough America in him for a million Americans.
Now, I’ve already blogged about his last years and the documentary about them here. Today, it seems timely to talk about his best known song and its deep personal meaning for me. I call it “his”, though technically it was co-written with The Band’s leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson. But really — come on. Robertson pursued his interest in rural American culture as a fascinated alien. Helm on the other hand, drove and encouraged the process from the INSIDE. He’s the one who sings the song for a reason. He owns the song, spiritually and artistically, if (clearly) not legally. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about Helm’s culture and history. Robertson helped raise the barn, but it’s Helm’s lumber and nails.
I’ve known and loved this song almost my entire life. Ironically, along with millions of other Americans I’m guessing, I knew the Joan Baez hit single version first. She released her one in 1971 and it went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. Though the original version by The Band came out in 1967, I don’t imagine that I ever heard it until some time in the early ’80s, through the agency of my best friend, who was a big fan of the group. I am fond of both versions of the song; I’ll compare and contrast them directly.
If I had to pick one popular American song of the post-rock era that means the most to me — more than that — is about me, illuminates me — this would be the one. Written in the style of a traditional American folk song, it’s a first person (fictional) testimony from an East Tennessee farmer about the last days of the Civil War when the North’s Total War slash and burn tactics had reduced the people of the region to starving beggars, the 19th century equivalent of having been “bombed back to the Stone Age.” They’re not just dirt poor, but demoralized, so beaten in spirit that they won’t recover for at least a century.
For some Americans it is a kind of anthem, for others it can be thought of as a test of our humanity. I’m born and raised a Yankee, though culturally, through my father, there is much about me that is Southern. My entire life has been a sort of internal wrestling match to the death between both sides of my brain. Now, last year I wrote this piece about the Stars and Bars. I feel pretty strongly that museums and history movies are the only places it ought to be flown. The secret hope that “The South will rise again” has been the source of so much damage and hurt. It ought to have been a matter of settled politics over a century ago.
But this song isn’t about the cause of slavery. It’s about the cause of humanity. Men have been fighting wars since before there were men. This side or that one may be the aggressor, this cause or that one may be the more heinous. But in the end each individual soldier fights for his own reasons. A certain number of men who fought and died for the Confederacy neither kept slaves, condoned slavery or wanted secession, they were just doing their duty. And many others didn’t even take arms, but still suffered the same privations and so forth. On top of this it’s not like the North wasn’t also full of racists whatever their politicians and clergymen said. So who “deserves” what happened is really an open question.
Ultimately, I can and do step back and say…yes but at the end of the day, they served the cause of evil. There were numerous Southerners who made a different choice…either became Union soldiers (some of my Southern relatives did that!), or like my (4th) great uncle Levi H. Knight spied for the union, or didn’t serve at all. I’m not someone who sees unquestioning duty as an intrinsic virtue. I am more partial to the American tradition embodied by Thoreau. God gave you a brain and a heart to make choices with. Abdicating the use of them just because you’re told to is to be less than a human.
But the ENTIRE South suffered during and after the Civil War, not just slave owners and racists. And in the end, war sucks for everybody, including innocent civilians. Well, that’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing humankind can endure. Granted, as an entity the South was akin to a mean, cruel and arrogant bully, but in the aftermath the bully lay in the mud, his bones broken, his eyes gouged out, his flesh lacerated in a thousand places, his home burned, his wife raped, his children killed, and he’s howling and crying in pain. What’s next, Victor? Our first reaction is to say, “Good! You had it coming!”. But I like to think most of us would soon soften, to as Lincoln said, quoting the Psalm, “bind the nation’s wounds.” If, once healed, the bully turns into a monster again (as I think it can be argued that the South has collectively done on occasion, many times), you cross that bridge when you come to it. But when someone’s down, you don’t kick them.
It’s amazing to me that The Band wrote and recorded this song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King had the kind of largeness of spirit this song appeals to, one of the million reasons his assassination was a major loss to the nation. Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Easier said than done. But it’s exactly what Lincoln’s plan was for the post-war period, “Charity To All, Malice Toward None.”
Anyway, that’s my imaginary conversation with a Yankee who might be lacking in sympathy for the vanquished Rebel. I feel like I know how to have that conversation because, like I say, I grew up a Stranger in a Strange Land. But as for those like me who are also children of the Rebels, I can attest that the memory of the wounds received lingered long, mostly because, yes, this is a stubborn and tradition-loving people, and they refused to let go. Culturally, many Southern people are Scots-Irish. They are a people given to multi-generational feuding. They don’t forget. Like, ever. They kept the loss and sense of grievance alive, nursed it, relived it every day. The culture of the South developed that beaten, fatalistic quality, that all the great Southern writers like Faulkner and Williams capture. My father absolutely had that quality. In some ways, it was as though the century behind us had never passed.
And a century isn’t such a long time anyway…the Civil War was four generations ago in my case. The children of that generation were my father’s grandparents, whom he knew well, and that knowledge was passed on to me. I was four years old when the Baez version of the song came out, so I was YOUNG when I first learned about the Civil War, as my dad parsed and interpreted this song for me. I generally have found myself confused and appalled to hear adults say they don’t understand what the song means…but that’s a wrong impulse. It ought to be a Teaching Moment. At bottom I find I can be a surprisingly crummy teacher.
Some nice person at www.traditionalmusic.co.ok posted the lyrics:
My great-grandfather’s name was Virgil Stewart, and this became one of my earliest connections to the song…it’s impossible for me to hear this without thinking of him, of thinking of this as my story. And Virgil was a farmer in Tennessee, just like the narrator. (My family, just like Levon Helm’s, were cotton farmers). Virgil Stewart was born after the Civil War, though. It was his dad’s generation that fought it. Virgil’s father Calvin sat it out (my theory is that because he had a newborn baby at the time of enlistment, and then Tennessee was soon occupied by the North after that). But Virgil’s uncle William Carrol Stewart did go and fight and was badly wounded at Gettysburg, so it is him and other relatives I think of when I hear the part about “a Yankee laid him in his grave”.
The choice of the name Caine seems significant, Cain being the Biblical inventor of murder. And not just murder: fratricide. “Brother against brother”. The South started it, there’s blood on their hands, and like Cain himself, they paid.
Years later, I began to link Virgil Caine with Buster Keaton’s character in The General. A train engineer? Union soldiers tearing up the tracks? As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that the melancholy historical echoes of the setting were what prevented Keaton’s masterpiece from being a hit in 1927. The ticket buyers were the kids and grandkids of the Civil War generation. Too soon? Yes — too soon.
“Stoneman” in the song refers to Major General George Stoneman, who led one of the last of the Union raids through the South during the Civil War, which was launched in Mossy Creek, Tennessee and moved East into North Carolina. His mission was to lay waste to everything he saw, and demoralize the civilian population. Mission accomplished!
Like I say, lately I’ve been listening to both versions of this song, comparing and contrasting them. Baez’s and Helm’s voices couldn’t be more different. Her’s is pretty and polished, Helm’s is homely and real. Baez is interpreting something for us from the outside; Helm is re-enacting it from the inside. The Baez version is guitar-driven, the Band’s is driven by Richard Manuel’s piano. I am partial to the many voices on the chorus on the Baez version, which to me evokes the cries of the many. I feel like the Band’s version is marred by Robbie Robertson’s whiny high harmony, I’ve never been able to stand his weak, thin voice. But I love the haunting harmonica!
There are interesting differences in the lyrics in both versions, reportedly because Baez didn’t have access to the real ones (beyond listening to the record.). Why she didn’t try to obtain the real ones is a question. I know that things were clunkier in those days…it was just telephone and U.S. mail to conduct business, but that’s not exactly an insurmountable hurdle. There may have been a time crunch. But what is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie down” but a folk song? And all the great folk songs pretty much get rewritten every time they’re sung. That’s the way of oral tradition. What are the “real” lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? For that matter what is the real title of the song? There are none. It is a perpetually re-interpreted, protean cultural product.
One lyrical difference (to my ears): in The Band’s version it sounds to me like Helm is singing “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” On the Baez version that line sounds to me more like “You cant raise the cane back up once it’s in the feed.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s singing but that’s what it sounds like. I’d take it to mean something like…if you’ve already mixed sugar cane into the fodder (lucky livestock), you can’t pretend its still planted in the ground to inspire with visions of what you’ll do with your crop. This could be my own hallucination, but this metaphor also works for me. The deed is done and now all hope for the future is dead,
Also…I’ve always heard one of the lines as “There goes THE Robert E. Lee”. I always pictured it as a train named after the Confederate general and it’s being hijacked, just like in the Buster Keaton movie I mentioned above. As a kid, I also interpreted the”Dixie” of the chorus in the same way, as a train, literally being driven away. After all, Virgil “drove on the Danville train”. With Dixie of course ALSO representing the entire Confederacy being driven into the ground through the scorched earth tactics.
There was also a steamboat named “Robert E. Lee” (like in the 1912 song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) but that vessel wasn’t christened until after the war (so much for letting sleeping dogs lie, South!). Consensus (including a quote from Helm) seems to indicate that the song refers to the literal Robert E. Lee, but that sounds dumb to me. Like, what’s he doing over there? Near a Tennessee farm, when he’s closing in on Appomattox? At any rate, I despise literalism in interpretation. If there’s only one meaning to it, it ain’t much of a fuckin’ song. As opposed to this song — which is a hell of a fuckin’ song. It’s a hell of a fuckin’ song.