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: