"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" / The Band
I'm getting psyched -- tomorrow night I'm going to the taping of a segment of Elvis Costello's interview show Spectacle. The guest line-up is pretty amazing (more on that tomorrow), but just for starters, I'm eager to see Levon Helm.
I'll admit, I was only a casual fan of The Band. I ignored them for years -- the Dylan connection, the country-tinged American sound, the fact that my older brother loved them -- all worked against them for me. But while I was living in England, I became obsessed with the movie Mean Streets, so naturally I went to see The Last Waltz when it came out in 1978 (I'd just moved back to the States and was living in Washington DC). I was captivated by The Band, especially Rick Danko, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets. Seeing Levon Helm's poignant performance in Coal Miner's Daughter a year or so later sealed the deal for me. My DC roommate had a couple of The Band's LPs, and I borrowed them so often, she eventually gave them to me.
This video link from The Last Waltz brings it back all over again. Unfortunately, I'd fallen for a band that had already broken up -- story of my life -- and my attraction never grew into full-fledged fangirl-dom. These days, I rarely think of listening on purpose to a Band track. But like a lot of familiar songs that you half-listen to, floating around you in the background soundtrack, every once in awhile I find myself paying attention to one of their songs, and I remember all over again what a great band this was.
My favorite Band songs tend to be the ones where Levon Helms sings lead; I just love his honey-edged crooning wail. True, the Americana quality of this song is a little trumped-up -- it's a fake Civil War ballad, and practically a history term paper, studded with general's names and battle places. Still, there's something momentous about that first line as Levon announces, "Virgil Caine is my name" -- even if the name was probably chosen just for the closing pun, "You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat."
For years I assumed that the event this song celebrates -- the "night" of the title -- was some pivotal battle, a turning point of the war, "the night the South was lost." But recently it hit me that it's really set just after the war, when Virgil, our Confederate veteran, is watching the funeral cortege of Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Old Dixie. Somehow that makes it more wistful and less woeful; it's an outsider's song, sung by a rebel who's been forced underground (the South will rise again!).
It should be a downer, yet you can't beat that singalong chorus, erupting into full harmonies: "The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing, / The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the people were singin'. / They went, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La..." The old-timey piano flourishes, Levon's military-style snare-drum rolls, make it feel authentic, like one of those old Matthew Brady phtographs. Its loping rhythms lurch along like a ragtag soldier limping home. The funny thing is, Levon was the only true son of the south in this band; the rest are all Canadians. But they sure fooled me with this song.