There is little doubt as to the impact The Band has had on modern music. From the opening chords of “Tears of Rage” (from “Music from Big Pink” to the closing strains of “The Last Waltz“. From being the Canadian kids playing behind Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins to being the back-up behind none other than Bob Dylan at the height of his success, The Band left an indelible mark across the music world and the generation that followed.
One of their most famous works is the masterpiece “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“. Written by Robbie Robertson, and an uncredited Levon Helm, and released in the Fall of 1969, the song reached #3 after it was covered by Joan Baez in 1971.
The songs lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and the sufferings endured by the South and particularly the hardships endured in the winter of 1865. The Richmond & Danville Railroad (“he served on the Danville train”) was a main supply route to the Dixie capital in Richmond and the destruction of the rails by Union General George Stoneman created an embargo of needed supplies. Its destruction hastened the South’s eventual surrender as the destruction prevented Robert E. Lee from moving needed troops to the front lines.
The grave of Gen. George Stoneman
Ralph Gleason in reviewing the song for Rolling Stone commented that:
“Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.”
As I mentioned above, the most successful cover of the song was a version by Joan Baez released in 1971. The song is Baez’s highest charting U.S. single of her career, and she performs it at every concert.
The song was also covered by Johnny Cash, Jimmy Arnold, John Denver, The Allman Brothers Band, and Jerry Garcia. I especially enjoyed Jerry’s version as it’s performed very slowly which I think fits the theme very well.
Personnel on The Band version
Rick Danko – bass guitar, harmony vocal
Levon Helm – lead vocal, drums
Garth Hudson – melodica, slide trumpet
Richard Manuel – acoustic piano, harmony vocal
Robbie Robertson – acoustic guitar
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm)
Virgil Kane is the name and I served on the Danville train
‘Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65 we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well