I’m taking a break from all the Katrina coverage today (but don’t forget to scroll below and read my post from yesterday afternoon about Dickie Scruggs being sued). I was thinking about the many people I’ve gotten to know in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, and I thought of The Band playing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Seven great things about this song:
- I’m told it’s totally authentic from the South’s perspective, even though it was primarily written by Robbie Robertson, a guy from Canada. He did have a lot of help from Levon Helm, from Arkansas.
- It’s got the right lyrics, not the fake lyrics in the Joan Baez version.
- If you ever want to see a singer completely nail a song, watch Levon sing this — nothing but raw emotion.
- No Joan Baez, who does a bubblegum version and is not convincing singing a song in which she is supposed to be someone named "Virgil Caine" from Tennessee.
- The line where Virgil’s wife says, "Virgil, quick come and see, there goes Robert E. Lee." Even though it is known Lee never visited Tennessee after the war, the line makes sense, because there were many false sightings of Lee throughout the South. Just like Elvis, some people wanted to see him so badly, they did. Similarly, many African-Americans reported seeing Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a link to comprehensive discussion of this song including the interpretation of the lyrics. Some say the line is a reference to a riverboat named the Robert E. Lee. However, the official sheet music apparently has no "the," and since Levon’s autobiography shows he was anxious that the song pay due respect to Lee, it’s unlikely that respect would take the form of singing about a boat. Another reason not to believe the riverboat tale: Baez sings "the Robert E. Lee" and this video of her version has a picture of a riverboat. Al Capp sure had her number when he tagged her "Joanie Phonie."
- The reference to "Stoneman’s cavalry" tearing up the Danville tracks again. Authenticity. George Stoneman was passe even before the Civil War was over — no one was talking about him 100 years later, except in this song. Somehow in Baez’s version it becomes "so much cavalry." So much cavalry came? You’ve got to be kidding me. Who would say such a stupid thing? Not Virgil Caine. Fake.
- The line "You take what you need and you leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best." To me, that ranks among the most memorable and chilling lines I’ve ever heard. Number one for me, of course, having grown up in NoDak on tales of the sky turned black at noon as the wind blew the fields away during the Depression, and drove tens of thousands from the land, is T.S. Eliot’s line from The Wasteland: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." But it’s right up there with Eliot.
In fairness, I don’t know if Baez had anything to do with the pictures on the version I linked to above, because you can find the same pictures on another version of The Band’s song on You Tube. But whoever did the pictures must have lost their mind: one image is of a big sign that says "Danville, Pa." You think Stoneman, a Union Army commander, is going to be raiding railroad tracks in Pennsylvania? Wake up, Pennsylvania was on his side! The song is clearly referring to Danville, Virginia and the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Of course, if you think the words are "so much cavalry," maybe you’d also think there was so much cavalry they got crowded out of the South and had to make do with tearing up whatever they could find up North.
UPDATE: Here is a version of the song by an older, and I would be tempted to say wiser, Joan Baez, except for the fact that I’ve heard her talk. In this version, she got "Stoneman’s cavalry" right and also left out the "the" before Robert E. Lee. Still no soul to her singing of the song, however. And what’s with the part where she is still singing "I took the train to Richmond that fell?" Didn’t she just admit that Stoneman’s cavalry tore up the tracks again, and that’s why Virgil isn’t on the Danville train anymore? What did the train travel on, long strings of hippie beads? A reader gave me some grief for not linking to the Grateful Dead singing this song, which they probably did at every concert. I love Garcia and the Dead but couldn’t find a video on You Tube. Hard to believe, I know, with all the video that was shot at Dead concerts.
SECOND UPDATE: I get an incredible number of hits on this post and some very positive response, which is good to hear considering I am an insurance lawyer and by no means a music expert. One inaccuracy in the UPDATE above, but the same reader who gave me grief later informed me it was not the Dead that sang this song (he said he knows of no concert at which they sang this), but it was instead the Jerry Garcia Band that made the song one of its standards. Different animal entirely. Couldn’t find a link on You Tube, sorry.