"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian-American roots rock group the Band in 1969 and released on their eponymous second album. Levon Helm provided the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the Southern United States during the last year of the American Civil War. Frequently appearing on lists of the best rock songs of all time, it has been cited as an early example of the genre known as roots rock.
Joan Baez recorded a cover of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971.
The song was written by Robbie Robertson. According to Rob Bowman's liner notes to the 2000 reissue of the Band's second album, The Band, it has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on peoples, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana. The lyrics tell of the last days of the American Civil War and the suffering of Southerners.
Robertson stated that he had the music to the song in his head but at first had no idea what it was to be about. Then the concept came to him and he did research on the subject. Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas, stated that he assisted in the research for the lyrics. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, Helm wrote, "Robbie and I worked on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect."
Dixie is the historical nickname for the states making up the Confederate States of America. The first lines of the lyrics refer to one of George Stoneman's raids behind Confederate lines attacking the railroads of Danville, Virginia at the end of the Civil War in 1865:
Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
Till Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again...
The Band frequently performed the song in concert, and it is included on the group's live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). The song was included in the concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 which was recorded in the documentary film about the concert, The Last Waltz, as well as the soundtrack album from the film.
The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz (1976). Helm refused to play the song afterwards. Although it has long been believed that the reason for Helm's refusal to play the song was a dispute with Robertson over songwriting credits, according to Garth Hudson it was due to Helm's dislike for Joan Baez's cover version.
It was #245 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the Sixties. The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and Time magazine's All-Time 100.
Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (U.S. edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners:
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.
The song has become a part of the ideology of Lost Cause of the Confederacy reflecting the perception of the South prostrate in defeat.
The most successful English-language cover of the song was a version by Joan Baez released in 1971, which peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US in October that year and spent five weeks atop the easy listening chart. Billboard ranked it as the No. 20 song for 1971. The version reached number six in the pop charts in the UK in October 1971. The song became a Gold record.
Baez's version made some changes to the song lyrics from the original. Baez later told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder that she initially learned the song by listening to the recording on the Band's album, and had never seen the printed lyrics at the time she recorded it, and thus sang the lyrics as she had (mis)heard them. In more recent years in her concerts, Baez has performed the song as originally written by Robertson.
Johnny Cash covered the song on his 1975 album John R. Cash. Old-time musician Jimmy Arnold recorded the song on his album Southern Soul, which was composed of songs associated with the Southern side of the Civil War. A fairly large-scale orchestrated version of the song appears on the 1971 concept album California '99 by Jimmie Haskell, with lead vocal by Jimmy Witherspoon. Others to record versions include Don Rich, Steve Young, John Denver, the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Warfield. the Charlie Daniels Band, Big Country, the Dave Brockie Experience, Vikki Carr, Richie Havens, the Black Crowes, the Jerry Garcia Band, Sophie B. Hawkins, Legion of Mary, and the Zac Brown Band have included covers on live albums.
Glen Hansard (of the Frames and the Swell Season), accompanied by Lisa Hannigan and John Smith, covered the song in July 2012 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover: Summer Break series.
The 1972 song "Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb" ("On the Day That Conny Kramer Died"), which uses the tune of the song, was a number-one hit in West Germany for singer Juliane Werding. The lyrics are about a young man dying because of his drug addiction. In 1986, the German band Die Goldenen Zitronen made a parody version of this song with the title "Am Tag als Thomas Anders starb" ("On the Day That Thomas Anders Died").Levon Helm – lead vocals, drums
Rick Danko – bass guitar, backing vocals
Garth Hudson – melodica, slide trumpet
Richard Manuel – acoustic piano, backing vocals
Robbie Robertson – acoustic guitar