The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

This song was a B side to Cripple Creek. This was on the Band’s self-titled second album The Band with peaked at #9 in 1970 in the Billboard Album Charts. The song was written by Robbie Robertson:

’ I told Levon I wanted to write lyrics about the Civil War from a southern family’s point of view. ‘Don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in the lyrics’ was his only advice, ‘That won’t go down too well.’ I asked him to drive me to the Woodstock library so I could do a little research on the Confederacy. They didn’t teach that stuff in Canadian Schools. When I conjured up the story about Virgil Caine and his kin against this historical backdrop, the song came to life for me. Though I did stop and wonder, can I get away with this? You call this rock ‘n’ roll? Maybe!

Joan Baez covered this song and it peaked at #3 in the Billboard 100 in 1971…while the Bands version didn’t chart…Life isn’t fair at times. Asked about the Baez version of this song, Robbie Robertson said it was “a little happy-go-lucky for me,” but he was thankful that it introduced many listeners to The Band.

The song appeared at number 245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

From Songfacts

Robbie Robertson wrote this song, which is set during the American Civil War – “Dixie” is a term indicating the old American South, which was defeated by the Union army. The song is not related to his heritage, as Robertson is half-Mohawk Indian, half-Jewish Canadian.

Robertson came up with the music for this song, and then got the idea for the lyrics when he thought about the saying “The South will rise again,” which he heard the first time he visited the American South. This led him to research the Civil War. 

The main character in the song, Virgil Caine, is fictional, but there really was a “Danville train” and “Stoneman’s cavalry.”

The train would have been part of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a vital conduit for the Confederate Army. George Stoneman was a Union cavalry officer who led raids on the railroad.

The vocals featured the 3-part harmonies of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko on the choruses, and Helm sang the verses. He was the only band member who was from the South (Arkansas), so it was fitting that he played the role of Virgil Caine, a Virginia train worker, in this song.

This was recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.’s house in Los Angeles. The Band rented it and converted a poolhouse into a studio to record their second album.

Joan Baez covered this in 1971. It was her biggest hit, reaching US #3 and UK #6.

Her version was recorded at Quad Studios in Nashville with producer Norman Putnam, who gathered about 20 people from around the studio to sing on the chorus. One of those voices belongs to Jimmy Buffett, who Putnam would later work with on his album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.

Baez changed some of the lyrics on her version. For example, she sings, “Virgil Cain is my name and I drove on the Danville train. ‘Til so much cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.” The original lyrics are, “Virgil Cain is THE name and I SERVED on the Danville train. ‘Til STONEMAN’S cavalry came and tore up the tracks again” referring to George Stoneman, who was a general in the Union army). 

This was used as the B-side to “Up On Cripple Creek.”

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well

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

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E Lee”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best

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

Like my father before me, I will work the land
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singin’, they went
Na, la, na, la, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’, they went
Na, la, na, la, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

21 thoughts on “The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

    1. I didn’t know about the Jimmy Buffet part. Baez did make it popular but the Bands version is so good and the melody is universal. It should have been it’s own single. Maybe the record company didn’t think a song about the civil war could make it.

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  1. A great song, and I think The Band’s is better than Baez’s though she does a decent job on it. Always liked the painterliness of the lyrics, real little story in it and great melody to go with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered that and looked it up…She didn’t have a transcript of the lyrics so she just sang what she thought she heard from the Bands version. She kept singing it that way for a while in concert. When she finally got the words she sang it right.
      Even in 1971 she could have gotten the words. Imagine someone trying to sing a Stones song by the way Mick sounds?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I understand that Baez gave exposure to The Band, but she can bite my azz on this one. Learn the lyrics to an important song! This song has significance and should never be considered a casual song. The Band does it up right and with genuine feeling. The horns lend a dirge atmosphere to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She uses her voice a lot…a little too much…she doesn’t let the song breathe…that is just my opinion… and the lyrics…If you are covering a song like…oh Louie Louie…ok you can get the words a bit wrong…but not this one. The story is a big part of the song.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well that’s Joan. She has always used her voice. That’s her asset as well as her great fingerpicking. But that song is pure atmosphere and band sound. But she struck gold with it. Joan knows good music which resonates when she hears it.

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