b Papa Dog's Blog: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Papa Dog's Blog

A Thing Wherein I Infrequently Write Some Stuff

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Here’s the song that for whatever reason has been rattling round my head the last while….

I don’t remember the first time I ever heard the title song, but I remember the first time I was what I’d call truly aware of it. It would have been I guess third or maybe at the latest fourth grade, and my class had embarked on a horrifically ill-conceived unit of study on the slave-owning American south. This was the first time I ever heard of slavery as having taken place in anything other than biblical times. It’s testament to how poorly the thing was taught that I didn’t understand even the most basic things about the subject until I saw Roots several years later. Anyway, one of the elements of this particular field of study was having a good listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I think I assumed it was some old southern song that had been around for ever. It surely never would have occurred to me that it had been written only a few years earlier but a crew of unwashed hippies from right there in Ontario. Of course, my more sophisticated adult ear hears the clues right away. The song could only have been written by a Canadian. Consider the opening couplet: “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,/ 'Til Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.” As Levon Helm, the token American, sings it, that doesn’t rhyme. As Robbie Robertson, Canadian songwriter wrote it, it surely did. I think that’s part of what gives the song a very strange beauty. There’s an odd tension in the fact that it’s written from an outsider perspective but sung by Arkansas native Helm very much from an insider perspective. It’s hard to believe, for example, that white Tennesseean Virgil Caine would really remember the fall of Richmond as a day when bells were ringing and people were singing, but when Helm sings it, you believe it. He brings such passion and intensity to the song that it’s easy to overlook every bit of muddled history and chronology in the song.

A few years back, Mama Dog and I had and took the opportunity to see a beautifully restored re-release of The Last Waltz at the Castro. Not only was the movie restored, so was the theatre. It had just undergone renovations and a most salubrious overhaul to its sound system, which had always been its Achilles heel. If I recall correctly, this was the first movie they showed with the new sound system. Quite shrewd; celebrate the new fidelity in sound by showing the greatest concert film of all time. I’d long heard that label applied to The Last Waltz, but had never seen it to judge myself. Perhaps it’s not the same experience if you don’t watch it in the city where it was filmed and with a brand new state-of-the-art sound system, but hell…if it’s not the greatest concert film ever, I can’t imagine what is. I’d never had much interest in The Band, and I still wouldn’t say I’m a great aficionado, but I have a hard time imagining a more thrilling cinematic portrayal of a rock show. The audience actually applauded between songs. Normally I think it’s just stupid when an audience applauds for artists who can’t hear them, but in this case it seemed apt. It really seemed like we were at a live show. Among the moments that made the movie live for me was Mr. Helm’s performance on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The level of his commitment to the material is astonishing. When he sings the chorus, the veins bulge on his forehead, the cords stand out on his neck, and he lunges his whole body up at the microphone like he’s trying to send himself into orbit from behind his drum kit. He looks like he could spontaneously combust at any moment.

I don’t know what this all says to me. Something about the delicate alchemy that creates a work of art out of unlikely components; about the importance of truly believing in the piece to make it live in performance. That, and the song’s stuck in my head. I thought maybe if I talked a bit about my own history with it I could get it out of my head and into yours. So take it away.


Post a Comment

<< Home