Significant Songs (23)

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The Canadian/American group The Band, were best-known for supporting Bob Dylan, on various tours. Most of the members had been around the music scene since the late 1950’s, and when they got together as a group, something magical happened. Their sound is perhaps best described as Country Folk, and the songs could also be seen as a history of the USA, in lyrics. I first noticed them after the release of their debut album, ‘Music From The Big Pink’, in 1968. This album contained the classic song ‘The Weight’, written by The Band’s front man, Robbie Robertson, and their version of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, co-written by Bob Dylan, and The Band’s Rick Danko. The whole album was full of solid tracks, and I felt that it was a worthy introduction to this unusual group.

The second album came out in 1969, and I thought that it was even better than the first. I initially bought the single released from it, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ around Christmas that year. The B side of this vinyl was the song ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. This combination was enough to ensure that I soon bought the complete album, which I later replaced with a CD, which I still play today, forty-five years after the original record was released. It is hard to describe the effect that this song had on me. The vocal is performed by Levon Helm, the drummer in the group. It has a plaintive air, and is sung in a noticeable southern accent. (He was from Arkansas) Since I had been a small boy, I had always had a fascination with the American Civil War, and The Confederacy. The spirit of rebellion appealed to me, and like most others, I naturally took the side of the underdog in that conflict. I was then 17 years old, and still interested in the subject, and also in music. This combined the two, in a way that I could never have imagined.

I cannot recall any modern songs about the Civil War in America. This one stands alone, not only for the orchestral composition, the unusual instruments, and the heartbreaking vocals, but also for the way it tells a story of a country, and men broken by war and tired of struggling; sad to see the end of an idea, and the loss of a cause. This simple song says all that, you just have to listen. It has been put to me that this is a ‘Country’ song. I suppose it is, in a way. It is one of the few Country songs you will ever see written about on this blog, but it has remained one of my most enduring favourites for decades.

The song gained a much bigger audience, when covered by Joan Baez, in 1970. She enjoyed worldwide success with her version, so much so, that many believe it to be one of her songs. It was written by Robbie Robertson, who left the group in the late 1970’s, and still continues to work today aged 70, after a successful solo career. Sadly, many of the other members of The band are no longer with us. The singer on this track, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012.

The star-studded farewell concert, held in San Francisco in 1976, was later turned into a well-known film by Martin Scorsese, and called ‘The Last Waltz’. This featured a particularly poignant rendition of this song, one of my favourite versions. It still gives me a chill, after all this time. Here it is. Play it loud.

 

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8 thoughts on “Significant Songs (23)

  1. Pete, it’s been ages since I’ve seen “Easy Rider.” Thanks for the film clip. I don’t recall the song, but I’ll listen to it a few times. The scenery is “my neck of the cactus,” as I always like to say.

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  2. Absolute MAGIC . . it always elevates the hairs this song. Like you Pete, I am a massive ‘Band’ fan, there has never been a group like them, even Little Feat don’t quite make it for consistency of quality and profound understatement. Keyboard aficionados would do well to listen to the great artistry of Garth Hudson, always in the background weaving harmonic elixir within the sparse group sound. The very best!

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  3. Pete, I’ve listened to this a couple more times, and it has grown on me. I found the lyrics here: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-night-they-drove-old-dixie-down-lyrics-band.html. Although there is an interesting Wikipedia article about this song, your personal analysis of it beats it hands down. The Band was apparently seen as a “roots rock” group. This song does come across as a country song, more so because of the singing style than the instrumentation, which, I think, includes a tuba. To be honest, I’m not familiar with what qualifies as a “roots rock” group. It would be interesting to listen to some of the other songs performed by this group so that I can get a handle on this musical style. As for Joan Baez, she apparently changed the lyrics here and there. As a lyricist, I can only shout, “Sacrilege!”

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    1. I am glad it is growing on you David. It isn’t really that much like the group’s other work. Perhaps their most famous song, which you will know if you have ever seen ‘Easy Rider’, will give you an illustration. Here’s a link.

      Best wishes as always, Pete.

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