The death last week of legendary American musician Levon Helm has his music back on the minds of many. Helm was best known as the drummer and sometime-singer for the seminal rock group The Band, which consisted of four Canadians and Helm, an Arkansas-native and the band’s American anchor. Perhaps thanks to the perspective afforded by being eighty percent expat, The Band forged a quintessentially American sound, most apparent on their first two records, 1968’s Music from Big Pink and 1969’s The Band. The latter featured “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” one of the highlights of The Band’s catalog and its best showcase for Helm’s powerful southern voice. Though a dispute over its authorship eventually led Helm to stop playing the song, it’s arguably the signature performance of his career.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a story of the last days of the American Civil War, told from the perspective of a poor white farmer from Tennessee named Virgil Kane. Though he’s seen the land around him destroyed by Union soldiers, and lost his brother to the conflict, he carries on, living through the “beautiful sadness” of the South that The Band’s Robbie Robertson says inspired the song.
Like my father before me
I will work the land
And 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
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can't raise a Kane back up
When he's in defeat
In Mystery Train, his classic work of rock criticism and American cultural analysis, Greil Marcus described the song as being less about the Civil War than about “the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” That description conjures Robert Penn Warren’s claim that the Civil War is America’s only “felt” history, “history lived in our national imagination.” And it rightly situates “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as an important reflection of popular memory of the Civil War.
More from Marcus’s Mystery Train:
It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.
Regular readers of this blog will recognize this as David Blight territory, and that Robert Penn Warren quote above actually opens the Prologue of Blight’s Race and Reunion. His more recent book, American Oracle, picks up the story of civil war memory at the time of the war’s centennial commemoration in the early 1960s, just a handful of years before The Band recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” In American Oracle, written in the run-up to the war’s sesquicentennial, Blight explores how the stories the nation tells itself about the war play a defining role in the country’s self-conception:
For reasons explored in this work and elsewhere, the American Civil War has been forever an event that fiercely resists popular consensus about its causes and consequences; despite voluminous research and overwhelming scrutiny, it remains the mythic national epic. As a broad culture, Americans seem incapable of completely shucking this event from its protective shells of sentimentalism, romance, and pathos in order to see to its heart of tragedy. It might be argued that this is rightly so with national epics—they should or can never be utterly deromanticized. Or it might be argued that such epics are also dangerous to national self-understanding, to a healthy, informed confrontation with the meaning of the most important elements of our past, and therefore the imperatives of the present. Modern nations are and always have been built upon their narratives of origin and development, and in this case, of destruction and rebirth. This study of the Civil War’s literary and intellectual history, as well as its popular memory, engages the compelling question of how the United States, to an important degree, is the stories it tells itself about its Civil War and its enduring aftermath.
Of course, last year The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates helped spark a debate over the conception of the Civil War as a national tragedy, objecting to that characterization’s downplaying of what was actually at stake. Yes, at the expense of many lives a nation was torn apart and then only very delicately reassembled, but, as Coates argues, a focus just on what was lost ignores the value of what was gained, even if only in name: emancipation for the country’s slaves.
From the perspective afforded by this new conversation, it’s notable that neither “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” itself nor Marcus’s mid-1970s appreciation of it as classic Americana mentions race or slavery. Emotionally moving as it is, the song has always inspired a certain amount of political ambivalence, and it’s clear that, decades later, it remains as murky and challenging as ever.
Here’s The Band performing the song in the1976 concert that became Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, with Levon Helm at his gravelly best: