You take what you need, and you leave the rest…
So since my career is probably going to be based around keeping the fuck up with my blogs, I probably should have taken myself seriously when I told myself to keep the fuck up with my blog. School has been demanding, along with my new internship, trying to start a band back up, and doing my best to somehow enjoy my last semester and a half of college in Boston from the redundant comfort of my parents’ house in the suburbs. But I’m going to give this thing another go, with a new approach, and hopefully get my few readers (I know you’re there…I’m still getting 20-some-odd hits a day even when I don’t update for months) to comment, criticize, and contribute to the discussion like they did in the beginning.
Now that I’m taking a music journalism course and a bunch of other music classes, my schoolwork is starting to coincide with my blogging interest. On the heels of the best class I’ve ever attended in my academic career, an entire modular on The Band, I’ve posted the first draft of my essay on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The piece delves into just how a Canadian songwriter was so capable, perhaps even moreso than an American, of composing one of the greatest Southern American anthems of the twentieth century. I also jive a bit on Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing and assert just how damn important Levon Helm’s Southern drawl is to the delivery of the song (suck it, Joan Baez).
It’s a rough edit, and I have edited a few things since. I’ll be thrilled if anyone would like to edit it, point out something that doesn’t make sense, etc. I’d be even more thrilled if peoples’ edits end up being the same as mine. Either way, please remind me that I’m not as good a writer as I think. Seriously, I’d appreciate the help.
The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“You know, Robbie, one of these days the South is going to rise again.” Robbie Robertson, Toronto-born songwriter and guitarist of The Band, turned Nell Helm’s half-jovial, half-browbeaten mantra into a Southern anthem that might have brought even Ulysses S. Grant to tears had it been written a century earlier. Nell was the father of Levon Helm, drummer, co-lead vocalist, and lone American in The Band, who brought Robertson to a library in Arkansas to research the Civil War before he sat down to write the gut-wringing lyrics to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Helm’s cadenced southern burr made the doleful story of Robertson’s fictional narrator, Rebel soldier Virgil Caine, authentic enough to bring The Band’s late-1960s audience to the basest state of unexplained nostalgia for a period in America’s history of which almost no one could speak. More importantly, the interplay between Richard Manuel’s bulky piano, Rick Danko’s affectionate bass, Garth Hudson’s unmistakable stream-of-consciousness organ style, and Helm’s expressive drumming makes “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a staple to reintroduce The Band to today’s generation.
Perhaps it took a Canadian’s perspective to make a Confederate anthem seem timely over a century after the Civil War and just a year after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Unlike most non-Southern Americans, Robertson’s love affair with the South was neither fleeting nor conditional; his enthusiasm for rock’n’roll, blues, and R&B strengthened his connection to the Southern atmosphere, its history, social traditions, and rhythmic dialect, not the other way around. His romantic attitude toward the South allowed him to illustrate its admirable qualities without emphasizing its troublesome history. Instead, Robertson focuses on the sense of community, importance of family, and unwavering work ethic that bred the music he loved in the South.
The song begins with the lines, “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train / Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.” With the opening lyrics, Robertson establishes a theme of blameless loss; while Caine acknowledges that the loss of the rail road, and later his fellow soldiers and his brother, come by the bayonets of the Union army, he expresses no ill will toward the North. He comes closest in the second verse with the lines, “You take what you can and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best,” but the loss of “the very best” does more to communicate the chaos and tragic turmoil of the Civil War itself than to dishonor the Union army. Even the line, “He was just eighteen, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave” from the third verse leaves politics alone. Robertson, a native of a land even more northern than the North, sought to highlight the South’s heartrending defeat without taking a side. The lyrics express the laments of an individual who suffered losses on a personal and familial level, and Robertson recognizes that the sum of thousands of such personal tragedies comprises the South’s overall sadness. In other words, the lyrics convey pro-South sentiments without imposing anti-North propaganda.
But despite Robertson’s profound understanding of the South’s pervading grief, his words would have sounded disingenuous, if not ridiculous, if sung by any of his Band-mates but Helm. His conditioned Southern drawl stretches words like “honnnngray,” and “tiiiiiiiiiime” to punctuate and compliment the historical context like only a born-and-raised Southerner could. His voice communicates reflective, soulful sorrow that neither Manuel’s thunderous baritone nor Danko’s loving croon could express. In the third verse, Helm’s voice cracks as he sings “Like my brother above me, I took a Rebel’s stand,” conveying the deepest sense of loss his character could have experienced as a result of the war: the passing of his brother in battle “when a Yankee laid him in his grave.”
On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the anchor and third track on The Band, they restrain their trademark chaotic sound; Manuel bounces up and down on the piano to the root notes methodically while Helm and Danko keep a steady beat on drums and bass respectively. Virtuoso keyboardist Garth Hudson improvises through the second and third verses with a harmonica-esque tone to emphasize the more passionate of Helm’s vocal lines. But Helm’s expressive drumming style might rival his vocals as the most emotional factor of the song if the two didn’t work so closely together. When he sings “But a Yankee laid him in his grave,” he switches to double-time for just four beats, an ironic energy kick for one of the most downtrodden lyrics in the song.
The Band’s best music thrives on the interaction between instruments and individual players and singers. They demonstrate their proclivity for three-part vocal harmony more effectively on The Band than on any of their succeeding albums, and the chorus of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” highlights the oneness of Helm’s, Manuel’s, and Danko’s harmonies as well as classic Band track. In fact, the somber unity of the Southern people could not have been better symbolized than by the Band’s three singers crooning “Na na na na na na na…” at the end of each chorus.
Instrumentally, all five Band members take turns injecting their respective personalities through musical subtleties. Manuel’s rolling piano line that opens the song gets progressively choppier as the choruses pass. Hudson’s harmonica-organ whines through the latter two verses with a gumption that, if not for its impeccably tasteful placement in the song, might overtake the vocals and lyrical substance. The divine connection between Helm’s uniquely dramatic drumming and Danko’s round bass, collectively a tragically unsung element of The Band’s instrumentation throughout their discography, plods the track along with faultlessly simple poise. Robertson, whose guitar playing often makes or breaks any given Band track (see “King Harvest” and the Last Waltz version of “Makes No Difference,” respectively), restricts his playing to acoustic chords that mimick the piano. However, his vivid strumming pattern hangs in the background to add light, twangy layers to the weighty overtones of the song.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” demonstrates one of the many elements of The Band’s playing style that separated them from their peers: they were one big rhythm section. Robertson built the song around a simple chord progression and a lyrical topic, and The Band expresses it within the wiggle room of their respective instruments without overshadowing any aspect of the song. All five instruments work together as a whole to emphasize the essence of the song while certain instruments work in smaller groups at certain times. For example, Helm hits on the first and third beats to keep a subtle, slow tempo throughout the song, but Manuel plays on all four beats. This interplay creates a somewhat conflicting rhythm that accepts defeat but does not wallow in it, mirroring the sentiment of Robertson’s narrator.
The track plays relatively linearly; it has a constant tempo and the chord progression only varies between the verses and chorus. However, Hudson’s keyboard soundscapes hover over the rest of the band halfway through the second verse and throughout the third to raise the energy level. Robertson arranges the lyrics so that the most moving lines appear toward the end of the song. The first verse provides a setting,, the second verse explains the first trickles of Southern woe on a wide scale, and the third brings the grief home as Caine laments at his brother’s death in battle. The short bridge after the third verse ascends upward as Manuel hammers his piano and Helm unleashes his inherent Southern passion in a front line-style drum roll. Although the build-up appears to foreshadow a grand finale, the final chorus fades out before the band hits its closing notes.
The Band recorded their self-titled second album live with minimal overdubbing and no distinguishable effects (apart from Hudson’s signature keyboard channels). “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” carries itself without much studio interference, and The Band’s organic chemistry and dynamics keep the energy level high throughout the recorded track. However, they fail to capitalize on the energy that climaxes during the bridge by fading out the final chorus. On the Last Waltz version, The Band plays the final chorus in its entirety to a screaming audience with a triumphant horn section, providing a much more satisfying sense of closure.
Still, the original recording of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that appears as the third track on The Band stands as a blueprint. It sets guidelines for how the song should be played, sung, and experienced. It leaves a small amount of room for The Band, and only The Band, to surpass it live by injecting impulsive energy and spontaneous vocal bursts. However, other artists who cover the song, many of them The Band’s contemporaries, fail to produce The Band’s organic, base energy by botching the lyrics or ignoring the subtleties that accentuate the song’s power. When Joan Baez performed “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (and, subsequently, several country artists who billed it as a Joan Baez cover), she sped up the tempo and changed the chord progression slightly. For example, she played a straight F chord instead of the commanding C/E. Such substitutions prevent the chord progression from going where The Band brings it: to the sense of melancholy hope they express in the chorus.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” relies as heavily on each element of the song as The Band does on each individual member; neither can survive in its purest, most effective form without any one of its parts. The music would bore without Robertson’s insightful lyrics, and the words would sound shallow without Helm’s soulful, throaty pipes behind them. Four of the five members of The Band hail from Canada, but their collective understanding of American culture oozes through their music like a permanent marker through toilet paper.