Richard F. Hamm: Essay: March 2021

My Southern Legitimacy originates with water. In 1963, my father decided to take the family South not West because the water in LA upset his digestion. My eldest sister always regretted the choice but I revealed growing up on the coast of central Florida. I loved wandering through the palmetto scrub, boating in the Indian River (which wasn’t a river), and swimming in the warm Atlantic. My education through college was in Florida; eventually I wandered North to start graduate school but returned South to finish it. But the academic jobs were just not there for me. Still, the South shapes much of what I do more than thirty years after I left. My first (unsigned book) review was the for the Virginia Quarterly Review, my first academic article was on Southerners and the Making of the Eighteenth Amendment, and all my books have been published by Southern presses.

The Modern Lost Cause Song

I was shopping in Trader Joe’s one morning before the pandemic (and before the flap about their “ethnic naming”) and pondering what shape pasta to buy when over the music system came The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Then I wondered why in at that time of controversy over Confederate memorials that this Lost Cause myth song was deemed acceptable to a corporate body trying to sell well-off people groceries.  And that made me consider, that somewhere there should be explanatory text contextualizing the song so American consumers are not seduced by its Lost Cause message.  Recent coming to grips with other popular culture of the Lost Cause mythology makes this more imperative – Aunt Jemima and Gone with the Wind have earned removal and remediation, why not this more recent addition to the Lost Cause canon?  Here, I try to provide such a text.  

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written by Robbie Robertson of The Band and sung by the aching voiced Levon Helm, is a lament for loss after the War.  Its slow and haunting melody and its capturing of the feeling of defeat and costs of war make it memorable.  From it appearance on The Band’s second album it has been lauded as a remarkable song.  Rolling Stone Magazine rated it as one of the top of the 500 songs of all time.  Part of the song’s mystique is deepened in that it is a “lost song.”  The original artists stopped singing it (and their last performance of it is remarkable, caught on film in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz) before the 1970s ended.  

Various pundits of rock rank it highly in impact and influence.  Most notably, Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train writes “It is not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.  In this case it is a man named Virgil Kane, who makes no claim to speak for anyone else; but something in his tone demands that everyone listen.”  Marcus rightly notes that the song was part of an album, in which “The Band – four Canadian rockers held together by an Arkansas drummer – staked their claim to an American story from the beginning.”  They “captured the yearning for home and the fact of displacement that ruled” the lives of the 1960s generation.  Their songs he notes have “a magic feel for history.” 

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down became so popular in part because of its music.  The music historian Barney Hoskyns says it has a “wood thuddy sound” that comes from Robertson’s filtering of Levon Helm’s Southern background.”  None of the Band’s music was commercially successful; their work in Woodstock was focused on creating art.  Yet, this song became a chart hit in the version covered by Joan Baez.  Her claiming of the song marked it as anti-war song, despite the intentions of its authors, as her version came at the very time that protest against the war in Viet Nam was the highest.  Levon Helm specifically in his autobiography said The Band was not political:  “none of us thought to write a song about all the shit that was going on back then:  war, revolution, civil war, turmoil.  Our songs were trying to take you someplace else.” 

Helm and Robertson agree on the origins and nature of the song.  Helm says it was “another of those ‘workshop songs’ we worked on a long time before got it down.”  Robertson recalls shaping the song in Woodstock.  First, there was the music.  “There was a chord progression and melody rumbling through my head, but I didn’t know yet what the song was about.  I played it on the piano one day for Levon.  He liked the way it stopped and started, free of tempo.”  Second, came the point of view, Robertson thinking of the song as something for Helm’s voice “flashed back to when he first took me to meet his parents in Marvell, Arkansas, and his daddy said, ‘Don’t worry Robin – the South is going to rise again.’”  Then came the topic, Robertson recalls, “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 Confederacy.  They didn’t teach that stuff in Canadian schools.”  Helm concurred, “I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and the geography of the era for the lyrics and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”  Finally, came the polishing, Robertson adds “When I conjured up a story about Virgil Caine and his kin against this historical backdrop, the song came to life for me.”  He sang the chorus to the band members shaped the lyrics into verses and they then adjusted the beats in the song, and developed ways for it to glide it into other songs in their repertoire.  

The history they consulted was the mainstream of the day.  The Woodstock library would have had the standard works on the Civil War from the era, few which would have run to social history and would have followed the trends of the historiography up to that time which saw the Civil War as a national tragedy.  And there is no evidence they were adherents to the Lost Cause or racists.  Sharp-eyed observers of The Last Waltz will notice the battle flag of the Confederacy that adorns the wall of the Band’s California studio (a Canadian flag covers another wall in another scene).  Helm sometimes wore a Confederate flag T-shirt while in Woodstock.  Certainly, this was the period where opponents of integration in the South had adopted the flag as a symbol of their resistance to change.  Yet The Band’s flags seems to be more a representation of a regional identity than an ideological statement.  Certainly, there is no overt racism asserted by the band members.  From their touring of the South where they later recalled the racism they encountered, from their admiration and collaborations with African-American musicians, it is clear that they rejected that part of the white Southern heritage.  In short, they were music makers not apologists.  However, what they produced is a remarkable addition to the Lost Cause myth.  Scholars have rightly pointed out that it is part of the modern Confederate memorialization culture, ranking “along with Dixie as “the theme song of the Lost Cause ideology.” 

The opening lyrics of the song work in the Lost Cause sense in a number of ways but also introduce the universalization counterpoint that accounts for its reach.  

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville Train
‘Till Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again.  
In the winter of ‘65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well.

There is the invoking of a real time and place, which roots the song balanced by a sense of general application to all wars.  The Danville train was the one that supplied the Confederate forces outside of Petersburg during the last large campaign of the War and George Stoneman’s troops did attempt to disable the Confederate rail lines then.  The Baez version universalized “Stoneman” into “so much cavalry.”  That was a natural change as the universal is stressed by the line “We were hungry, just barely alive” exposing the privation brought on by total war.  It gives the song a sense of immediacy that is part of its power.  Only a pedant would worry that Caine visits Richmond long after it fell, indeed on the very day that Jefferson Davis was captured attempting to flee the country.  The moving around in the wake of the War was a reality of the War’s end and leads to the universalization of the experience.  

Its adoration of Robert E. Lee is of course iconic for the myth:  

Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me
Said “Virgil, quick come see,
There goes Robert E. Lee.

While others have noted, that Lee never visited Tennessee in the post-War period before his death in 1870, that misses the point of the song.  The line underscores the nature of the Lee as symbol of the noble Lost Cause.  If he went by you had to see and honor him and by implication, the listeners of the song should feel the same reverence, or at least understand its power.

The song is also an autobiography of sorts, making Virgil Caine into the everyman of the Lost Cause.

Like my father before me
I will work the land
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand.

Combined with the line that he served on the Danville train, it is assumed Caine is a regular solider, defending the lifeline of the Army of Northern Virginia.  However, he could also be an engineer on that train.  It is said, he is the son of a farmer and he too will farm.  The assumption is often made that he was just a poor farmer the son of a poor farmer.  That this song was part of an album that explored the stories of average or working people, this reading of Caine’s background is sound and surely is what its authors intended.  The Joan Baez version cemented this view by saying that he was “a working man.”  

But even rich planters of the American South called themselves farmers.  It is unclear if he was poor before the war.  It is possible that he wasn’t poor but that he was a slaveholder with more than 20 slaves which was why he was exempt from the Confederate draft and joined up later.  Or his status could be higher, that of engineer, again exempt from the draft but requiring more means to have achieved than that of a poor dirt farmer.  Or he could have been a poor farmer’s son who is drafted.

It is also clear that he is the younger son.  His brother above me was the elder.  And like many a younger brother he followed in his brother’s footsteps.  He too takes a rebel stand.  Here the use of “rebel” is revealing.  The word had become culturally important by the 1960s.  It of course was the term used to describe the shift of many young people into rejecting mainstream society, they were members of the “youth rebellion.”  In response to post-World War II consumerism and conformity, the idea of the rebel took on positive connotations of bringing about change.  Both of these meanings contributed to the song’s popularity.  

But, unlike his brother, Virgil Caine survives the conflict to remember it.  

He was just eighteen, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave.

As for the elder brother, there is a specificity:  he was young, had the virtues prized in Southern society for men, and he was killed by “a Yankee.”  These details are offset by the universal reality, young men die in war.  It is one of war’s great sorrows.  It is the loss, more than the fall of Dixie that moves the narrator.  “They should have never taken the very best” he wales.  This observation comes as Caine reflects on his immediate post-War world.

Now I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never have
Taken the very best.

No matter what his status before the war, after it, Caine is poor.  The post-War work of Caine is part of why it works as anti-war song.  It makes the cost of war is made apparent in human terms.  Only a sociologist or a historian would care that Caine is now in the wage economy which is not distributing income fairly or ponder whether “the money’s no good” either reflects what he is paid for his work or is a general comment that Confederate currency had become worthless.  What most listeners care about is how loss of life defines him:  “But they should never have taken the very best.”  

But, let’s go back to the chopping wood and historicize this point.  Before the War there was one large group who chopped wood in Old Dixie:  slaves.  So, Caine says he is not upset that he is doing that which was once beneath any white man, he is resigned to it.  It also places him in an urban area for it makes no sense for anybody to be cutting firewood for money unless he is in town.  And this fits with the historical record because whites and blacks did try to go to urban areas after the War, because was after all where the Freedman’s Bureau was feeding people, black and white and wage work could be found.  And while some might interpret the “You take what you need And you leave the rest” as a generous statement of someone who exercises true charity or is so lost in despair that he doesn’t care, it could also be read as someone who is so unfamiliar with the cost of things that he does not value his own labor.  A tortured reading I think, but worth pondering when our feeling of sympathy for Virgil Caine obscures what the War came to be about.  

The structure of the song verses is not chronological; it is memory.  And it is memory that is stuck:  it loops around and around thanks to the chorus.  All is defined by the night they drove old Dixie down.  

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.  

Who is the “They?”  Is it the Yankees who killed his brother, fellow white southerners who instituted the draft and maybe “took” Virgil Caine into the military, or Carpetbaggers who were remaking the region?  It is not clear.  They, unnamed, opens to the listeners’ mind to the worst boogeymen they can imagine.  It conjures up the ultimate other who does evil:  The Enemy.  J. R. R. Tolkien would have been proud to use that line.  It is again a universalizing which help to explain the appeal.  

The chorus is like a dream is:  a jumble of things.  It mixes bell ringing with the fall of the Confederacy, but the bells were only ringing in the places that were celebrating the victory; not in Richmond.  The people sing the utterly ambiguous “la la.”  

And more importantly in telling the story, there is no mentioning of the reaction of the African-Americans of Richmond who greeted Abraham Lincoln’s surprise visit to the recently captured (or should we say liberated) city.  The silence African-Americans and the telling of the story of only Yankee and Rebels is of course typical of the genre and fixes it firmly in the Lost Cause family.  I hope we know better now than to be seduced by that part of the myth.  

Caine’s lament is that he is so low that he will never rise again evokes the powerlessness the defeated feel.  

I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he is in defeat.

This line implies hopelessness; it is the echo of the refugee in every war.  But actually combined with the rising music, it rejects it:  It is like Mother Courage, not giving up.  Indeed Caine is defined by defeat but not budging or changing.  The Caines are rooted in the mud, maybe made by blood.  They are not going anywhere.  Considering the post-War history of white southerners, it can be heard not just as a lament but also as a threat.  

Thus on multiple levels the song works as a Lost Cause myth song, and like the most successful of works in that genre, it gets the audience, if not to identify, at least to empathize with the defeated white Southerner.  Robertson later recounts what that last performance was like.  “I don’t know if I’d ever heard Levon sing and play” the song better.  “I saw the horns behind him looking like some kind of glorious funeral procession.  His truth in that vocal could tear your heart out, and when we hit the final chorus the roar of the crowd felt like it help us lift the stage a foot higher.  It took me back to when I first wrote the song, I wanted to come up with something that Levon could sing better than anyone in the world.”  

This is what Robertson and Helm wanted:  to tell a story from a point of view.  They were artists exploring their craft.  That is what actually makes it such a success on every level.  Yet, I think its Lost Cause credentials are eaten away by the ironies.  Consider that farewell concert memorialized in Scorsese’s film.  In that version, the song is prefaced with a prelude, the song Dixie, played by a mostly African-American horn band led by the magnificent Allen Toussaint.  There are lots of other points of view to explore about the South than just Virgil Caine’s.  

1. Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train:  Images of America In Rock “N” Roll Music 6th edition (New York:  Plume, 2015 [1975], 50
2. Barney Hoskyns, Small Town Talk:  Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, & friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Boston:  Da Capo Press, 2016); Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s on Fire:  Levon Helm and the Story of the Band (Chicago, IL:  a cappella books, 1993, 2000), 220.
3.  Robbie Robertson, Testimony (New York:  Crown, 2016) 333-34; Helm Wheel’s on Fire, 188.
4. Robertson, Testimony, 363; Frank J. Wetta and Martin A. Novelli, The Long Reconstruction:  the Post-Civil War South in History, Film, and Memory (New York:  Routledge, 2014), 16.
5. Robertson, Testimony, 478.