The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

One of the few advantages of having lived a few years is that you get actually find out which works of art, tv shows, dramas, movies, and songs really stand up over time. Sometimes you find out that a brilliant piece of music or drama is far more rare than you had ever imagined.

Sometimes something you once thought was brilliant turns out to be pedestrian.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (first released in September 1969) is simply a terrific song, whether you prefer the raucous version by the Band, or Joan Baez’s cool, crisp, symmetrical rendering. I almost always prefer the versions performed by the composer, and I love the Band, but in this case I like the version by Baez more. For one thing, it’s tight construction prevents Baez from indulging in too much warbling or emoting– makes her sound like she really does have a good voice. For another thing, it’s a damn fine arrangement of guitar, bass, and drums.

The hardest element of music to describe, teach, or duplicate is rhythm. Sometimes people even call it “feel”, as if it was something you can’t see or taste, or even hear in a literal sense. Baez’s version has the same intangible as Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing” and Dylan’s entire “John Wesley Harding” album. At the time of it’s recording, you heard this kind of crisp, tight rhythm more often in Nashville recordings than you did in Los Angeles or New York. These are cracker-jack musicians.

Virgil Caine is the narrator. His rustic “voice” dryly recounts how he worked on the Danville train until the tracks were torn up by Stoneman’s (Union) Calvary. Then he took the train to Richmond just before it fell and the Confederacy surrendered. “It was a time I remembered oh so well”. Robertson’s clever lyric then has the people singing nothing more specific than “na na na na na na, na na na na, na na na na na”, as if life goes on no matter what disasters befall us, and the disaster is too great for words.

Many have commented on the fact that the song takes the voice of a southerner, at a time when many people regarded the South as an embarrassment of bigotry and repressiveness. It’s a brilliant stroke and almost everyone who hears the song immediately realizes how right and true it is. Not a few attribute this unique perspective to the fact that Robbie Robertson was a Canadian, who saw the South without jaundiced eyes, and fell in love with the mystique, the cadences, and the culture of the South.

There is another angle to this song that is a bit disturbing. Levon Helm claims that he “helped” Robertson write the song. Helm is from Arkansas, a Southerner, and some commentators on the Band think that there is some bitterness between him and Robertson over the song. Does the song belittle the South? That would be totally contrary to almost everyone’s impression of the song, which is the opposite. Or is it something to do with the credits? Who knows?

One oddity. Why does “Robert E. Lee” in the Band’s version become “the Robert E. Lee”, a steamboat in the Baez version? Turns out that it could be because Robert E. Lee never passed through Tennessee after the war, but the Robert E. Lee did. Less forgivable is “I took the train to Richmond, it fell” for “On May the 10th, Richmond had fell”. I don’t know what problem Baez had with that– other than the fact that Richmond did not fall on the 10th– the entire confederacy did. Richmond “fell” on April 2. And utterly contemptible is the “so much cavalry came” for “Stoneman’s calvary came”. Joan Baez, do you think your audience is too stupid to accept the name of an obscure Union officer who was responsible for executing Grant’s scorched earth policy instead of “so much”? Geez!

Doesn’t matter. If you read the website at the link above, you will notice two thing: endless, obsessive fussiness over the details of the song, and boundless admiration for it. A typical comment: it is easily the best popular song ever about the Civil War. And that it is.

On The Band

There was a horrible tendency of bands of this era to indulge in long, utterly incomprehensible overtone-laden guitar-solo driven codas, in the mistaken belief that something “deep” would reach out and contact them.  You have to keep that in mind to appreciate just how stunning “Music From the Big Pink” was.

There is a lengthy and somewhat bizarre dissection of the lyrics here.  Is it “mud” below Virgil’s feet or “blood”?  Did Robert E. Lee actually pass through Tennessee after the war? 

Update 2022-05-02

In performances, Joan Baez has corrected the lyrics.  It wasn’t malice: just carelessness.  Now that she knows the right lyrics, she sings the words Robbie Robertson wrote.

The Scam of Ethanol

From the New York Times, May 15, 2006: A. David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University, published a paper in 2005 with Tad W. Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley stating that the corn-to-ethanol process powered by fossil fuels consumes 29 percent more energy than it produces. The results for switchgrass were even worse, the paper said, with a 50 percent net energy deficit. “I’m sympathetic, and I wish that ethanol production was a net positive and a help to this nation,” Dr. Pimentel said in an interview. “But I’m a scientist first and an agriculturalist second. I don’t think the U.S. will meet its goals with biofuels.” He also said the United States did not have enough agricultural land to displace gasoline with biofuels. “Even if we committed 100 percent of the corn crop to making ethanol, it would only replace 7 percent of U.S. vehicle fossil fuel use,” he said.

I had read something like this years ago, so I was surprised to see and hear numerous articles and news stories praising the idea of ethanol as a gas substitute for North America, and, just maybe, the long-dreamed-of solution to our dependence on foreign oil. I started thinking– am I crazy? Did I dream that ethanol actually takes more energy to produce than it creates?


Even “60 Minutes” recently rhapsodized about the possibility of filling America’s freeways, long after the Saud’s are depleted, with biomass-fuelled cars, without once mentioning that corn is produced with the help of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, machinery, and transport, all of which consume vast quantities of…. fuel. In fact, if you had to use ethanol to produce ethanol instead of fossil fuels, the absurdity would become clear: it would take 1.5 gallons of ethanol to produce one gallon of ethanol.

In short, ethanol is not cheap, not sustainable, and solves nothing. There is no way America could ever produce enough corn to produce enough ethanol to even begin to replace fossil fuels.

Think that particular study by Pimentel is biased? You would think, then, that defenders of ethanol would be happy to show you different studies that show different results. On the contrary, they tend to damn with faint praise, admitting that corn-based ethanol may never be able to replace, at best, more than 1/3 of our current fossil fuel requirements.

In all fairness, some scientists claim that ethanol can be more efficiently produced. In all fairness, the scientists who say that appear to be employed by ethanol manufacturers. Archer Daniels Midland is the largest manufacturer of ethanol. According to the Cato institute, it costs taxpayers about $30 for every $1 of ethanol produced.

Except one thing: it gives the American government an excuse to bribe farmers in Iowa to support a particular candidate in the early caucuses come election year, as “West Wing” dramatized (Republican candidate Arnold Vinick refused to endorse ethanol and, in this fantasy drama, still won the nomination).

Ethanol is a scam.


The News Gets Worse.

From Cornell University:   An acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre, according to Pimentel’s analysis. Thus, even before corn is converted to ethanol, the feedstock costs $1.05 per gallon of ethanol.

Some critics point out that, technically, it takes more than one gallon of gas to produce a gallon of gas too.  Sort of.  It appears that the amount of energy required to extract and process the oil used to make the gasoline is greater than the yield.  Like ethanol.  So what we have here is that we are paying a premium to make the fuel portable and usable by cars.  Point taken.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that using corn to make ethanol is not the economic or environmental solution it’s proponents claim, and, even more to the point, even if you used all of the corn crops in the U.S. for ethanol, it still wouldn’t be enough to replace even 1/3 of American  requirements.  (“1/3” is generous– some experts say it is much less.)

The farmer is America’s sacred cow. Literally. So when people say they support ethanol because they would rather give their money to American farmers than Arab sheiks, they have a point, right? Only if you also believe that the RIAA wants to stop piracy of music so it can pay it’s artists and composers. The fact this that most of the ethanol subsidies go to the corporations– like Archer Daniels Midland– that sustain this scam, not farmers who grow the corn, though they undoubtedly benefit from higher prices. Oh– the higher prices…

Baseball Statistics

Major League Baseball Advanced Media is not making a copyright claim to the statistics themselves; a 1997 decision in the United States Court of Appeals involving the National Basketball Association ruled sports statistics to be public-domain facts that do not belong to the leagues. Ny Times, May 15, 2006

This is very interesting.

I didn’t know this, but several sports websites, including CBS Sports and ESPN, pay Major League Baseball millions of dollars for permission— permission!!– to promote their product. Okay– baseball, sees them as exploiting baseball’s already fabulously valuable product for their own purposes. I see it as asking the customer to pay for the advertising.

The NY Times article wasn’t completely clear about it, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the payments are for use of the images and names in rotisserie leagues run by those websites, wherein fans can choose a roster of players who then “perform” as they do in real life for the virtual team.

I’ve got an idea for CBS and ABC and FOX and ESPN: go to Major League Baseball and announce to them that you can’t afford to pay them to advertise their game so, from now on, they will not pay and simply never again mention Major League Baseball or Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey or anything else about their product at all.

It would be very helpful if all the sports media outlets did this at the same time.

Does Sports Illustrated pay to write an article about the World Series? Do they pay to interview Barry Bonds?

This is nuts. Just say no. No more publicity for baseball. Promote something else– go to FIFA and ask if they would like it if they devoted all of that space to them instead.

What do you think?

After John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court and George Bush appointed Priscilla Owens in his place, the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade. …

Be careful what you wish for. I have to credit an article in the Atlantic Monthly from May 2006 for this insight: a Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe vs. Wade means that every State will then be able to write its own legislation on abortion, which means that the Republicans, while proclaiming their wholesale devotion to the right to life position, will suddenly actually be in a position to impose their views on the country. Is this something the smart Republican really wants?

The core of the Republican coalition is the Christian Right. Have you ever heard these people discuss abortion? Have you ever heard them discuss possible exemptions for rape or incest? This is a very uncompromising bunch. They will not be happy to vote for a Republican who promises to allow those exemptions. But if a Republican proposes a law without those exemptions, he will risk the wrath of up to 70% of the electorate who believe there should be reasonable limits– but not a wholesale ban– on abortion. In that sense, the true-believer Republicans will suddenly fall into the category of “extremist”.

Any Republican who realizes this and decides to take a moderate position risks being turfed by his own party in the primaries, which are dominated by the true believers.

It is quite possible that, in many states, a Republican candidate for state government, or even for congress, could not get nominated without support from the die-hard Christian right.

The Democrats might or might not be wise enough to propose “moderate” legislation, either limiting abortion to the first three months, or even to cases of incest or rape.

It is possible that such developments could alter the political landscape in the U.S. for a good 20 years.

Monuments to Victim Vanity

The strange, strange sacred and immutable right of families of 9/11 victims to spend an unlimited amount of public money on an obscenely tasteless monument: does anybody have the guts to say, enough is enough? They are now discussing a $1 billion dollar monument to the victims of 9/11, at the site of the former World Trade Centre. Did you know that the monument to all 55,000 dead soldiers from the Viet Nam War cost a “mere” $7 million? For that $7 million, those families received one of the most graceful, respectful, and amazing monuments ever built.

(Then the veterans jumped in and erected a more traditional monument right next to it to spoil the effect. Damn you– we are not ashamed of our war!)

Where will all this money go? Probably to middle-men, agents, lawyers, and contractors. Oh– there will be about $500 for a “vehicle security” gadget. I can’t imagine what that will be. Is it because they think more 9/11 hijackers are going to come over and destroy the memorial?

Will families of dead soldiers from Viet Nam please organize themselves? It’s never too late to jump on the bandwagon and demand your share. You should probably get a $10 billion dollar monument, and it should be right in front of the White House and it should be at least 2000 feet tall.

I’m sorry, but as sympathetic as I am to the families of the victims, it’s hard to not see this all as an insult to their memories.

But not all of them. I’m sure some of the families believe, as I do, that this entire exercise has turned into a tawdry, tacky joke and someone should stick a fork in it.

Now here’s my insanely great solution to the entire debacle: they should build a quiet, humble, small memorial at the base of the towers, and then donate the $990 million left over to fund “freedom schools” in Arabic countries that teach, for free, science, geography, music, literature, and math to earnest young Arab boys and girls.

Some of the families of the victims will say: such a small memorial would be an insult to the memories of our loved ones. Well, think about that. The memorial is not about them– it’s about you.

Another Hapless Victim of the “War” on Terror

Another “suspected terrorist” gets his. Or doesn’t.

American juries seem a little less mad than American prosecutors. If you read the story above, a reasonable person might conclude that the FBI had lost its mind… or that it was under enormous pressure to produce a conviction, any conviction, of anybody– as long as their name sounds something like Osama Awadallah— Arabic!

The FBI successfully demonstrated that Osama Awadallah had written the name Khalid in a school notebook even though he denied– after 20 days of solitary confinement– that he knew anybody named Khalid. Khalid is Khalid al-Midhar, one of the 9/11 hijackers. Well, well, case closed then, don’t you think?

It appears that the FBI was convinced that something sinister was afoot: here was a man who had actually talked to two of the hijackers. Osama admitted that. He had known two of the hijackers 18 months before 9/11. But he only recalled the name of one of them. But Osama wrote in his notebook this: “One of the quietest people I have met is Nawaf. Another one, his name is Khalid.” Khalid was the name of the other hijacker. Seize him.

In the grand jury room, Osama was handcuffed to his chair, though there was not a shred of evidence to indicate that he was anything other than exactly what he claimed he was: a Jordanian college student who had remarked on quiet Khalid.

In the four years since his case began, Osama has been taking courses at San Diego State University.

No matter how many cases like this I read about, I never fail to be stunned at the absolutely shocking indifference of the American public and its political leaders to these cases of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation, by government officials— and then the inevitable bizarre admission that even the prosecution doesn’t believe the suspect is a terrorist, or has committed any serious crimes. Yet the prosecution in this case had a fanatical determination to prosecute Osama and apply a sentence of ridiculous severity. They would like to lock the man up for five years because he denied– then later remembered– that he did know a quiet man know Khalid.

Osama was locked up in solitary confinement for 20 days, before his appearance before the Grand Jury. Yes, this is how we treat a man who is suspected merely of lying about whether he had met one of the hijackers. The prosecution was determined to convict him of perjury– why? To prove that they were men?

You have to understand that by the time the case has progressed this far, the prosecution MUST obtain a conviction to prove that Osama really deserved to have been treated so badly by the prosecution. And to show that we, and not they, the prosecutors, have lost all sense of perspective.

If a jury finds him not guilty, it might as well fire the prosecutors as well, because it is also saying that they have made a monumentally idiotic assessment of how the taxpayer’s money should be spent.

There are some sane people in America. A Judge Shira Scheindlin dismissed the charges. An appeals court reinstated the charges, so sanity did not prevail. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal then accused Judge Scheindlin of unspeakable crimes against the security and safety and oil supplies of the United States of America, may God Bless Her!

I did not see a dollar figure to tell you how much the United States Government was spending to prosecute a man for not fully disclosing all of his social contacts.

There are people serving less time than that for arson or assault or rape or bribing the same idiotic congressmen who passed the very laws under which Osama is being prosecuted.

Is it possible to reach any conclusion but that the man is being persecuted for being Arabic?

Will a point in time come when Americans ever become ashamed these farces?

The government must be shocked at having a judge not roll over in the face of their authoritarian strategies– they demanded that the case be heard by another judge. The Appeals Court said: the government doesn’t always get to win.

One of the gripes the prosecutors held against Scheindlin was an article she wrote which apparently supported the idea that judges should defend individual liberties.

The Spammer Lobby

It is a scandal beyond all comprehension that the government continues to allow spammers to operate with virtual impunity.

Do you wonder why you never read about a spammer being caught and sent to jail? Because just when the U.S. government was about to pass serious legislation (which still was not enough) to restrict the activities of spammers, it chickened out, took money from the spammers for their election campaigns, and castrated the legislation.

Wah Wah Wah – Juries and Tort

“Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah,” one juror told the Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.”

Vioxx is suspected as a cause of heart attacks in patients who have been taking the drug for 18 months. As much as I dislike pharmaceutical companies, the culture of litigation that has reared its ugly head again, is almost as contemptible. Everyone who ever came near a Vioxx pill has got his lawyers gunning for millions. Unfortunately, juries, moved more by compelling testimony about hardships and pain than facts, love to slap the pharmaceutical companies down… in a way that doesn’t really solve any of the long-term issues.

What is needed is for the government to regulate drug prices. Americans, however, still believe that there can be competition between a product and a product that does not exist.

If you don’t feel like paying $30,000 a month for a cancer treatment that cost about $30 to manufacture, you can shop elsewhere. Or die.

Four Great Songs of the Early 1960’s

The the late 1950’s and early 60’s were generally weak years for popular music– so weak that four merely good songs stand out clearly as “great” amid the rolling surf of mediocrities and manufactured product.

Early rock’n’roll like “Heart Break Hotel” and “Sh-boom” had been supplanted by look-alike drones and novelty tunes issued by the recording industry as after-thoughts to feed a market they thought was sure to disappear shortly. Serious musicians went into folk or classical. The fascists went for country. The teeny-boppers when for Fabian and the Italian studs like… Frankie Avalon and Bobby Whatever or Tony Twister.

So a very small number of outstanding singles made it onto the play lists:

  • Runaway (Del Shannon)
  • I Fought the Law (Bobby Fuller Four)
  • Needles and Pins (Searchers)
  • Suspicion (Terry Stafford)

The last-named is really a rather blatant rip-off of the Presley version– one of the few Presley songs I really like. If you search the internet long and hard, you might find a recording of the song including stops and retakes and comments by the musicians, including Presley.

And I can’t remember what the fourth one was. I’ll think of it eventually. [I did. It was “Needles and Pins”. Not really, but it will do.] It was not “Sherry”, which is a novelty tune. In the meantime, to properly appreciate the achievement of the songs listed above, you have to spend a few hours listening to nothing but all of the 2:30 long singles by the Chiffons and the Shirelles or even the Supremes. Don’t believe the revisionists who will try to tell you that the Chiffons were actually brilliant: they were always mediocre. As for the Supremes… you can’t hurry love.

They got on the radio because the airwaves were not controlled by listener preferences but by the backroom deal, payola, as it pretty well is today.

The best driving song ever, bar none: “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.

The next best driving song: “July 4th, Asbury Park” (Sandy) Bruce Springsteen.

All right– it’s ridiculous to think there is only one or two best driving song. There are several, including “Satisfaction” and “Thunder Road”.

For some weird reason, not a single Beatles song ever sounded really great in your car at 50 mph with your window open. They just don’t. Well, maybe “Obladi Oblada”.

Bob Seger’: “Night Moves” does pretty well.  So does “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan.