The Band

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Composed by Robbie Robertson

Song Review by

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.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Band 1969 Capitol
Rock of Ages 1972 Capitol
No Image 1975 EMI Music Distribution
The Best of the Band 1976 Ais / EMI Music Distribution
The Last Waltz 1978 Rhino / Warner Bros. 4:37
No Image 1978 Capitol
Stage Fright [Japan] 1980 Toshiba EMI
No Image 1983
To Kingdom Come 1989 Capitol/EMI Records / Capitol 3:31
No Image 1989 Capitol
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: The Best of the Band Live in Concert 1990 Collectables 4:38
No Image 1992 EMI Music Distribution
Collection [Castle] 1993 Castle Music Ltd.
Across the Great Divide 1994
The Best of Across the Great Divide 1994 Capitol
No Image 1997 Rhino / Rhino/Warner Bros. 4:16
Weight 1999 Disky 3:33
Greatest Hits 2000 Capitol/EMI Records / Capitol / Star Time International 3:32
Goin' South 2001
Various Artists
Razor & Tie 3:33
Vietnam: Songs from the Divided House 2001
Various Artists
Q Records 3:32
Rolling Stone Presents: The Early Years 2002
Various Artists
Rhino 3:32
The Last Waltz [Box Set] 2002 Rhino / Warner Bros. 4:35
The Collection: The Band 2002 Toshiba EMI 3:31
Country Complete 2003
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution
Superstar Rock Festival 2003
Various Artists
Warner Music 4:29
Singers And Songwriters: Pure & Simple 2003
Various Artists
Time/Life Music
Music From the Big Pink/The Band 2005 Eagle Vision / EMI / EMI Gold
American Classics: 17 Greats from the States 2005
Various Artists
Crimson Productions 3:33
American Rock Classics [Disky] 2005
Various Artists
Disky 3:33
Crimson and Clover 2005
Various Artists
A Musical History 2005 Capitol 3:33
I Love Country 2006
Various Artists
EMI/Virgin TV
Goin' South Platinum Edition 2007
Various Artists
Razor & Tie 3:31
101 Jukebox Classics 2007
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 3:31
40 Jahre Flower Power 2007
Various Artists
G&H / Ganser & Hanke Media 3:33
Die Hit Giganten, Vol. 23 2007
Various Artists
Sbm Records / Sony BMG 3:31
Platinum [Capitol] 2007 Capitol/EMI Records 3:33
100 Hits: Swinging 60s 2012
Various Artists
100 Hits 3:33
Live at the Academy of Music 1971 2013 Capitol 4:41
No Image 2013 Starbucks
The Millennium Collection: 20th Century Masters 2014 Capitol 3:31
Carter Barron Amphitheater, Washington DC, July 17th 1976 2014 Keyhole Records 4:03
Truckers, Kickers, Cowboy Angels: The Blissed-Out Birth of Country Rock, Vol. 2: 1969 2014
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 3:34
Icon 2015 Capitol 3:32
The Country Album [Universal] 2015
Various Artists
Universal Music TV 3:30
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Town: Radio Broadcast 1970 2016 Laser Media 5:02
20 #1's: Classic Rock
Various Artists
Hip-O 3:29
American Heartland: Legends of Country
Various Artists
Sony Music 3:30
Classic Country [Rhino]
Various Artists
Rhino 3:31
Exclusive Pop Songs from the 60s
Various Artists
Palladium Circles: The Classic NYC Broadcast 1976 Iconography 4:11
Sounds like Nashville, Vol. 2
Various Artists
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