Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
At first consideration it may seem odd that Robertson, a half-Mohawk Indian, half-Jewish Canadian, could have created a song about the American South. But consider the story within the song, as told by Virgil Cain, a non-combatant railroad worker witnessing the scorched-earth atrocities of the American Civil War from the losing side. Cain watches as the Union Army General George Stoneman destroys the railroad that is his livelihood; watches as Richmond, Virginia falls; mourns the loss of his brother who was "proud and brave/but a Yankee laid him in his grave".
The song's central lament -- "You take what you need and you leave the rest/but they should never have taken the very best" -- is equally valid as an expression of grief from a Native as from a Confederate perspective.
Adding further resonance is the vocal delivery of the song by Arkansas-bred Levon Helm, who also provides the loping, ragged beat that suits the song's defeated yet proud theme.
Though never a major hit, "Dixie" was the centerpiece and soul of The Band's self-titled second album, and, along with "The Weight" from the Big Pink sessions , remains the song most identified with the group. The song spawned a handful of cover versions, notably Joan Baez' top-10 version from 1971.
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