Perhaps no other artist of the rock era chronicled the American experience with the grace, insight, and beauty of the Band -- no small irony, given the Canadian origins of four of their five members. Maybe that's the key, however; it's tough to imagine an American-born songwriter crafting so vivid and balanced a portrait of the post-Civil War South as Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"; even well over a century after the fact, the scars of the conflict still run too deeply on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, requiring an objective outsider's view to make any real sense of it all. That the song not only evokes the spirit of its troubled times but also inspires sympathy for its rebel protagonist is no small tribute to Robertson's gifts as a songwriter, painting a chilling, deeply moving portrait of an American tragedy which captures all the authenticity of a traditional folk ballad. Where so many of Robertson's narratives approach their subjects from oblique, abstract angles, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is simple and straightforward; Levon Helm, whose militaristic marching beat drives the song forward, also assumes lead vocal duties to relate the story of Virgil Kane, a former Confederate soldier who served on the Danville supply train and later fought in the army's ill-fated defense of the Southern capital of Richmond, a battle which lingered from June 1864 until April 1865. Following the South's defeat, Kane -- the name's almost too perfect, suggesting not only the harvest crop of the region but also the Biblical figure pitted against his sibling, Abel, much as the Civil War pitted brother against brother -- returns to his Tennessee farm, living out the remainder of his days as a civilian but still haunted by the Confederacy's defeat, by the battlefield death of his brother, and by a way of life forever shattered. Given the explosive Vietnam-era political climate which birthed "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," it's tempting to read the song as a reaction to contemporary events, but it seems first and foremost a character study of one of the many soldiers who risked their lives in the name of fighting for what they believed in, no matter how right or how wrong, and of the devastating repercussions of such conflicts, regardless of which side wins. A highlight of the Band's self-titled 1969 masterpiece, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was not originally a pop hit, although it remains a staple of AOR play lists; in mid-1971, Joan Baez did score a Top Three pop smash with her recording of the song, however, albeit making several small but important lyrical changes in the process.