Saturday, April 4, 2009

A song we remember oh so well

It was the night they drove old Dixie down.

When dawn broke on this day in 1865 for the Confederate States of America, the capital of Richmond was in the hands of Union forces and, for all intents and purposes, the Civil War was over.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'' contains a few historical inaccuracies. Its reference to Richmond falling on May 10 might have been alluding to the capture of President Jefferson Davis more than a month later. But give Robbie Robertson credit: This is a powerful song that captures the spirit of the South and lends a sympathetic tone to a cause not always faithfully portrayed in American history books.

Add Levon Helm's rich, earth-sodden voice, and the song achieves mythical significance.

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

Robertson has always said the song sprung out of nowhere, but he remembers visits to Dixie where he heard the all-too-common refrain "the South's gonna rise again.'' And apparently he was touched by the feeling, calling it "a beautiful sadness.''

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

It was the night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singin'...

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