“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“ is a song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian roots rock group The Band in 1969….and released on their second album….with Levon Helm providing the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the protagonist….who was a poor white Southerner during the last year of the American Civil War….when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia. 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 version of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971.
The song was written by Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm…..and according to Rob Bowman’s liner notes to the 2000 reissue of the Band’s 2nd 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, portraying the suffering of the protagonist, a poor white Southerner.
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….while 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…