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.
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?
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.