What’s In The Words: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Robbie Robertson (R) with Eric Clapton and drummer Steve Jordan (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

“Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there go the 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” by The Band

Of all the songs written and performed by [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]The Band[/lastfm], this is the one that most clearly defines their deep, emotionally charged understanding of America’s struggles through the war-torn 19th century.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the story of Virgil Caine, a man whose work was done with his hands, whose life was spent close to the earth. It’s also the story of how the fabric of that life — his land, his work, his family — were torn apart by a nation held together by threads.

In his great book, Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo learns from [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Robbie Robertson[/lastfm] that “Dixie” was not a song that came together right way.The chord progression existed for almost a year before the words came to his head.

It was worth the wait. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” remains one of rock and roll’s great songs of Americana. And from a band of mostly Canadians, at that.

Read more What’s in the Words.

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