Monday, March 2, 2009

The Band - "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (the song remains the same)

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a song about the conclusion and aftermath of the American Civil War. At first it seems ironic that it was written by Canadian Robbie Robertson of the The Band, but upon further reflection perhaps the song makes the kinds of observations that can only be written by an outsider. The genius of this song is that it captures the pathos and mythology of the lost cause and transforms it from a polarizing political statement to a universally applicable personal account of suffering, loss and resignation.

The song tells the story of the fictional Virgil Caine, who "served on the Danville Train / 'til Stoneman's calvary came / and they tore up the tracks again". After the war, Virgil is paroled to his agrarian life in Tennessee and reflects upon the war ("In the winter of '65 / We were hungry, just barely alive / By May 10th, Richmond had fell / It was a time I remember oh so well") and the loss of his brother ("Like my father before me, I will work the land / Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand / He was just 18, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave"). Virgil is a guileless man and makes sense of his current state in reconstruction-era Tennessee with "I don't mind chopping 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".

The song has been covered by many folk, country and southern rock artists and given the subject matter, combinations of those genres might be the only versions we will hear. Although it was first released on The Band's 1969 eponymous second LP, the most popular version might be Joan Baez's 1971 hit from her Blessed Are... LP. Interestingly enough, Baez changed the lyrics due to mis-hearing them on The Band's recording. Some of the changes have minimal effect: "'til Stoneman's Calvary came" became "'til so much calvary came", "There goes the Robert E. Lee" (a ship) became "There goes Robert E. Lee" (the general; the distinction would change the time frame of the story), "I will work the land" became "I'm a working man". But one of her changes I consider more powerful than the original: "I swear by the mud below my feet / You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat" she changed to "I swear by the blood below my feet / You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat". The result is, similar to traditional music, every cover version has some permutation of Robertson's and Baez's lyrics; even Baez's versions change over time.

The list below has most of the important versions, but it should not be considered a complete list. And despite that they are all arranged more or less the same, each versions find a different nuance to the story.

The Band: YouTube. The previous link is to the studio version, but it is hard to compete with the version from the Scorcese's movie The Last Waltz: YouTube, Kewego.

Joan Baez: YouTube, The YouTube version is from what I assume is a contemporary TV show; it showcases her version of the lyrics nicely.

Johnny Cash: YouTube1, YouTube2. The first version is a studio recording; I'm not sure which LP but the backing vocals make me guess mid 70s. The second version is not a complete song, but was taken from a TV show. I wish there were a complete version of Cash doing the song in this style.

The Black Crowes: YouTube. I'm not really a big fan of The Black Crowes, but they do a great arrangement of this song that is reminiscent of The Last Waltz version by The Band. From their 2005 DVD.

Clay Hart: YouTube. This is probably the only Lawrence Welk Show clip you'll see covered on F-Measure.

Jerry Garcia Band: YouTube. S-l-o-w-e-d w-a-y d-o-w-n. This version claims to be from a 1975 show; you can also find a live version on their 1990 double eponymous LP. This is probably the most non-standard arrangement listed, but I quite like it.

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