“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 second album….as Levon Helm provided the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the protagonist, a poor white Southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War….when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia. The song appeared at # 245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Joan Baez recorded a version of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971….which was the most successful version of the song ever released….as it peaked at # 3 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 # 20 song for 1971…..as the version reached # 6 in the pop charts in the UK in October 1971….when the song became a Gold record. Baez’s version was used during a pivotal scene in the 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri….and is included on the film’s soundtrack.
The song was written by Robbie Robertson….who spent about eight months working on it…..as he said he had the music to the song in his head….and would play the chords over and over on the piano….but had no idea what the song was to be about….then the concept came to him….and he researched the subject with help from the Band’s drummer Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas. 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.”