A Few of Our Biographies:
A Few Fine Pop Songs
This is Part One of a Three-Part Article
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Virgil Caine is the name
The song feels like a folk tune, writes Gleason, like traditional material transmitted “from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today.” In fact it was written in 1968-69 by Robbie Robertson (who then signed his work J.R. Robertson), a native of Toronto, Canada, a songwriter and guitarist for the rock group the Band. (Members of the group are shown on the album cover above. From left to right: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson.)
Here is the original album version of the song and here’s a live version. The latter, from the film “The Last Waltz,” is described by Helm, the Band’s drummer (and vocalist on this number), as “maybe the best live performance of this song we ever gave.”
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the Band’s tribute to history, to struggle, and to the proud heritage of Helm, who grew up on a cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Helm recalls the song's genesis: “I remember taking (Robertson) to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era for the lyrics and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.” Robertson recalls the Southern vibe that surrounded him as he wrote: “I liked the way people talked. I liked the way they moved. I liked being in a place that had rhythm in the air. I thought, ‘No wonder they invented rock ’n’ roll here.’”
Robertson’s song presents a Confederate veteran as a brother in pain, tangled up in incomprehensible forces, inundated by the terrible requirements of honor, just like everyone else. The songwriter's Canadian heritage helped him in the writing. Coming from Canada, Robertson says, gave him “a window to look through” at America “so I didn’t take things for granted.” This sentiment was echoed years later by Canadian Margo Timmins of the band Cowboy Junkies: “I think it’s precisely because we’re outsiders that we’re able to look at what makes the American imagination tick.” What makes the American imagination tick probably has more resonance globally than many Americans realize.
The complete lyrics:
Virgil Caine is the name
The night they drove old Dixie down
Back with my wife in Tennessee
Like my father before me
The night they drove old Dixie down
The song freely mixes history and poetic license. Here are a few explications of lines.
“Virgil Caine is the name....” Some listeners speculate that Caine was a real person, but he is a pure product of the songwriter’s imagination.
“....’Til Stoneman’s cavalry came/And tore up the tracks again....” In the waning months of the Civil War, U.S. Major General George Stoneman (1822-1894) raided Confederate positions in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Devoting considerable attention to destroying railway tracks, he played a significant role in crushing the Army of Northern Virginia. Stoneman’s name is supposedly still cursed in the regions he attacked.
“....By May the tenth Richmond had fell....” Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederate States of America, actually fell to Union troops in early April of 1865. Conceivably, Virgil Caine’s hazy recollection of the date is a deliberate effort by the songwriter to convey the chaos of war - Caine remembers the feel of the time but isn’t clear on the specifics. “Facts aren’t always the most interesting,” says Robbie Robertson, quoted by critic Greil Marcus in his book “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” (1997).
“....It’s a time I remember oh so well....” Levon Helm extracts every drop of meaning from these simple words.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was first issued in the fall of 1969 on on the Band’s second album, titled “The Band,” called one of rock’s “perfect albums” by critic David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine. The collection is saturated with history, sometimes explicitly, as in the lyrics of this song, sometimes implicitly, as in the general vibe. Greil Marcus writes,
Flowing through (the Band’s music of this era) were spirits of acceptance and desire, rebellion and awe, raw excitement, good sex, open humor, a magic feel for history – a determination to find plurality and drama in an America we had met too often as a monolith....(“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) is not so much....about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carries a version of that event within himself....The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event.
Every American still shares this old event. As T.S. Eliot says, “The Civil War is not ended: I question whether any serious civil war ever does end.” Or as William Faulkner writes of the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The Civil War, and its artistic depictions and evocations, is imprinted on the soul of every American living today - Lincoln is imprinted, and Grant, Lee, Jackson, Pickett’s Charge, the slaves, the quest for freedom, the idea of defiance, Frederick Douglass, “Gone With the Wind,” Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the steps in 1963, Alice Walker, and Ken Burns. And Virgil Caine, leaning on his plow, telling his timeless story.
* Joan Baez, in her cover version of the song, a hit in the late summer and early autumn of 1971, changed several words from the original. She got ripped by a few critics for her trouble – Greil Marcus calls her version a “massacre” of the original. Massacre? Hogwash. Her rendition is gorgeous and furthermore introduced the song to millions of people who might not otherwise have heard it. Here is the Baez version on YouTube.
* The writing of Greil Marcus is deliriously wrapped up in history. He connects rock music to its deepest and most unexpected roots. He writes, “I am no more capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking of Herman Melville than I am of reading Jonathan Edwards....without putting on Robert Johnson’s records as background music.” Marcus’ most comprehensive study of the Band is included in his book “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music” (1975; 1990 third edition).
* A collection of articles about the Band is available here.
Rain commenced in America's Mississippi Delta region in March of 1927 and kept coming like something from the Good Book. “It just never did stop,” said a resident of the delta, which stretches from Missouri through Arkansas and Mississippi, to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
Townfolk along the Mississippi River filled a vast number of sandbags, but on April 21, 1927, at about 2 a.m., at Mound Landing, Mississippi, a levee broke. (A dike also broke on the 21st at Pendleton, Arkansas.) According to one engineer – this sounds impossible, but apparently it’s true - water was soon gushing through the Mound Landing breach at a rate approximately equal in volume to that of Niagara Falls. Millions of acres were flooded; hundreds of towns were inundated - Sumner, Leland, Holly Ridge, Helena, Greenwood, and so on, down a long list.
The Mississippi’s levees were walls of earth built to control the river’s course and protect cropland during spring flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was confident the dikes would hold, right up to the moment they failed. “The river,” writes William Faulkner, “was now doing what it liked to do, had waited patiently the ten years in order to do, as a mule will work for you for ten years for the privilege of kicking you once.”
At least 246 people died in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and more than 500,000 people were left homeless. Rescue was haphazard, dependent on volunteer relief efforts, which, one observer notes, “tended to ignore” black people. Land was flooded from Illinois to the gulf, 100 miles across in some spots. Mud and filth were everywhere, and the stench of dead dogs, dead cows, dead mules, dead human beings - food for rats and vultures.
(A good history of the event is “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” by John M. Barry . See also “Deep'n As It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood” by Pete Daniel , available here at Amazon.com and here in preview form at Google Books.)
The first songs about the flood appeared even as the waters raged – Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues” and “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan").” In May of '27 Vernon Dalhart recorded “The Mississippi Flood” and Sippi Wallace cut “The Flood Blues.” A few weeks later, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded “Rising High Water Blues.” Soon thereafter Memphis Minnie put down “When the Levee Breaks,” covered more than 40 years later by Led Zeppelin.
Sometime in 1927, the bluesman Charley Patton recorded “High Water Everywhere, Parts I and II.” He cut the record in two sections because of limited recording time on tape recorders.
Patton (c.1881-1934; his first name is sometimes spelled “Charlie”) was a seminal blues perfomer. He was a short, wiry guy with a growly, powerful voice, a mean streak, and a need to communicate. He helped create the blues in the late 1890s and early ’00s in the vicinity of Dockery Farms, a plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi, that employed many sharecroppers.
Here is a link to a recording of the song, wherein Patton delivers a singular vocal performance. Listen, for instance, to what he does with the simple word “barred” at the end of the second stanza (not so simple a word, of course). There is a direct and quite beautiful connection between Patton's enunciations in 1927, the work of Howlin’ Wolf in 1956, and the wordings of Mick Jagger in, for example, “Tumbling Dice” in 1971.
“High Water Everywhere, Parts I and II” by Charley Patton (1927)
The blackwater done rose around Sumner there
Lord, the whole round country, Lord, river has overflowed.
Now looka here now Leland, river was risin’ high.
Oh yeah, the water done now Lordy, done broke,
Now the water now, mama, done took Charley’s town.
I am goin’ out of that water where lands don’t
Lord the water done rushed all, down old
Blackwater at Blytheville, doctor weren’t around.
The water was risin’ up at my friend’s door
The water was risin’, got up in my bed
Ohhhhhh I hear, Lord Lord, water upon my door
So high the water was risin’, I been sinkin’ down.
Ohhhhh, Lordy, women and grown men drown.
Charley Patton's song is about the flood. Maybe it's about something else too.
Patton and his fellow African Americans in the South lived every hour of their lives in the shadow of the white mob, which could kill them, burn them, laugh about it, and get away with it. Happened all the time, especially in the 1890s and '00s. It happened during the '27 flood. Maybe Patton heard about it.
On May 4, 1927, a white mob hanged a 38-year-old black man named John Carter outside Little Rock, Arkansas, and burned his body. His crime was jumping on a carriage carrying two white women and possibly striking them. He did this at a time of high tension in Little Rock because of the recent rape and murder of a white girl. Carter was not suspected of that crime, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Also, during flood clean-up in Greenville, Mississippi, a black citizen was murdered by a white police officer after refusing to work a second shift shoveling mud.
Charley Patton could not record an explicit song about the white man’s capacity for murdering the black man - not safely. But he was, first and foremost, an artist, someone with an imperial need to cut through the horseshit and tell the truth. He perhaps found an eloquent metaphor in the death-dealing water of the Mississippi River.
Patton was a musical ancestor of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, who came to prominence in the '40s and '50s and influenced the great surge of '60s and '70s rock, including Jimi Hendrix, who sometimes played his guitar behind his back, as Patton did on occasion. Within that lineage, a performer named Randy Newman found his voice - a spiritual grandson of Patton (however unlikely that may seem at first glance) and a cult favorite during the singer-songwriter movement of the '70s. On his 1974 album "Good Old Boys" Newman includes a lovely song about the Mississippi flood titled "Louisiana 1927." Here's the album version and here's a live version. (The song became the unofficial anthem of Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to this article.)
The narrator of the song is a Louisiana farmer who has been wiped out by the rain. Let us imagine a back story for this unnamed fellow.
He was born before the Civil War on this very plot of land, a hundred acres north of Evangeline. He has been a farmer all his grown-up life, pulling on overalls at five o'clock every morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year, going out to milk the cows and scratch a living from the soil. He’s a God-fearing, hard-working man, and perhaps, to judge from his voice, he’s a kindly and thoughtful man. He might be a distant relation of Virgil Caine in Tennessee.
The flood killed his wife. He barely escaped. As the water receded he spent two weeks sitting in a military surplus tent in a refugee camp, and now he’s back home, standing in his farmyard, looking at his collapsed house. The sky is leaden and the air is muggy. His dogs and cats are gone, as are his cows and chickens.
He hears a car engine, and turns to see a Model T chugging toward him on the soggy driveway. The car stops and a man gets out, a skinny fellow wearing a white shirt with the sleeves folded up to his bony elbows, and a cigarette in his mouth. He's got a quizzical, sympathetic look on his face. He walks over, wipes his brow with a handkerchief, shakes his head in apparent sorrow, and asks a question designed to extract a useable quote for tomorrow’s edition of the Atlanta Constitution: "Lordy. What has happened down here?"
Our narrator has been pondering that very question. His reply, in the first verses of the song, is quiet and shy, in the manner of a countryman of the 1920s:
What has happened down here is
Does our narrator recall that six feet is the depth of a grave? Probably so; he's been thinking about that fact all week.
River rose all day, the river rose all night.
There is a pause in the conversation as the reporter writes on a notepad and looks up and nods his head. And now the farmer suddenly feels the size of the forces that have wrecked him. It's a big feeling; he needs to consider it. He's not defiant and he’s not passive – he occupies a middle ground where maybe he can do something about this thing and maybe he just can’t.
Who is "they"? The Yankees? The fates? The government? The government's involved somehow; it has been tardy in responding to what's been happening down here. One of 'em showed his face briefly.
President Coolidge come down in a railroad train
The farmer comes close now to breaking down, maybe from tears, maybe from laughter, maybe from both:
....what the river has done to
One of the most popular records in America in the spring of 1959 was a perky ballad about the War of 1812 sung by country performer Johnny Horton. The recording begins with a banjo picking out some notes from “Dixie.” Then comes the exuberant vocal. Here's the song on YouTube (with a campy production number featuring the decapitation of a stuffed alligator) and here are the lyrics:
In Eighteen Fourteen we took a little trip
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
We looked down the river and we seen the
Ol’ Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
Yeah, they ran through the briars and they
We fired our cannon til the barrel melted down.
Yeah, they ran through the briars and they
The author of “The Battle of New Orleans” is Jimmie Driftwood (1907-1998), born James Morris, sometimes spelling his name Jimmy, a teacher and possibly a school principal in the 1930s in the Ozarks region of Arkansas. He wrote the lyrics at some point in the ’30s to interest his students in history. For a melody he borrowed a traditional fiddle tune titled “The Eighth of January.” For a point of view he borrowed from an American folk song that appeared shortly after the War of 1812, cited by scholar Constance Rourke in her 1931 book “American Humor: A Study of the National Character":
But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scar’d
Driftwood performed his song often in the Ozarks over the years, and in 1957 he went into a studio and made a record of it. This was heard by Johnny Horton (1925-1960), a talented singer looking for a hit. Horton contacted Driftwood; they got together and trimmed the song to commercial radio length; Horton recorded the number in early 1959 in Nashville. The song soon swept the nation, going to number one on both the pop and country charts. Maybe the Cold War was a factor in the success of a song about brave Americans standing up to nasty furriners.
The British Broadcasting Corporation banned Horton’s record from its airwaves because the phrase “the bloody British” was regarded as derogatory. Horton, a canny trouper, recorded a special version for the British and Canadian markets.
Jimmie Driftwood capitalized on the record’s success by quitting his teaching job and taking up music full time, working as a chronicler of local tunes. In the 1970s he helped create the Ozark Folk Center and the Ozark Folk Festival in Mountain View, Arkansas.
“The Battle of New Orleans” shaped the remainder of Johnny Horton’s career, encouraging him to specialize in history songs. In the fall of ’59 he enjoyed success with “Johnny Reb,” written by Merle Kilgore, and in early 1960 his recording of “Sink the Bismarck” reached number three on the pop chart. The latter number, written by Horton and Tillman Franks, was intended as theme music for the British film “Sink the Bismarck!”, about the Royal Navy’s pursuit of a German battleship in World War II. The Horton & Franks song was so historically wacky, notes author Shaun Mather, that the filmmakers refused to incorporate it in their work. Consider, for example, the opening lines: “In May of Nineteen Forty-One the war had just begun/The Germans had the biggest ship that had the biggest guns.” In May of 1941 the Second World War was 18 months old and the British had endured one of the greatest trials of their history, the Battle of Britain. Also, the Bismarck was not the “biggest ship” – the Royal Navy’s battle cruiser HMS Hood was slightly longer, a point of pride for Britain. (Bismarck was a bit heavier than Hood.)
The Bismarck sank the Hood on May 24, 1941; British ships sank the Bismarck on May 27.
Johnny Horton cut several other history records in the last part of his career including “The Battle of Bull Run,” “John Paul Jones,” and “Young Abe Lincoln.” He was killed in 1960 by a drunk driver in Texas.
Much of Horton’s catalog, including “The Battle of New Orleans” (U.S. and British versions), is available on a four-CD collection titled “Johnny Horton 1956-1960” (with a 124-page book) from Bear Family Records, a superb reissue label. Bear also attends to the career of Jimmie Driftwood, selling a three-CD set of his music called “Americana” (with a 24-page book) that includes his version of “The Battle of New Orleans” along with “The Battle of San Juan Hill,” “Bunker Hill,” “General Custer,” and many other numbers. In 2000, the Columbia/Legacy label issued a re-mastered CD titled “The Spectacular Johnny Horton” as part of its “American Milestone” series; this includes the U.S. and U.K. versions of “The Battle of New Orleans.” In the late 1970s the Blues Brothers cut a version of “Sink the Bismarck.”
This song is not about the Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa, according to Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997). And he should know. Right?
“I’m not sure how ‘Pancho and Lefty’ came about,” said Van Zandt in 1977, “but all of a sudden it was there and I was thinking at the time I was writing it that it wasn’t Pancho Villa.” In 1984, Van Zandt said, “I’ve always wondered what it was about.” (Here's a YouTube version by Emmylou Harris.)
Whatever. History saturates the song, along with fable, mystery, and a Sunday-morning-comin’-down despair strong enough to turn a soul to iron. A lot of listeners detect something here about Pancho Villa's flight from the authorities; maybe there's something here too about country music star Lefty Frizzell.
Living on the road my friend
Pancho was a bandit boys
All the federales say
Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All the federales say
A few gray federales say
Pancho Villa (1877-1923), real name Doroteo Arango, was a cold-blooded thug who murdered, robbed, and rustled. He also fought against a Mexican dictatorship. Chased through northern Mexico by U.S. troops for the better part of a year (March 1916-February 1917), he was never captured. Mexican political opponents eventually assassinated him, and balladeers turned him into a Robin Hood figure. See here for more on the chase.
Lefty Frizzell (1928-75), born William Orville Frizzell, was a country music performer of the 1950s responsible for such hits as “If You’ve Got the Money Honey, I’ve Got the Time.” He was a substance abuser (as was Townes Van Zandt). He was a handsome rogue, sometimes irresponsible, and often depressed (as was Van Zandt). He was a Texas native, the son of an oil driller; Van Zandt, also a Texan, was born into a family in the oil business. Frizzell died young, as would Van Zandt.
Singer-songwriter Steve Earle comments about “Pancho and Lefty,” “You won’t find a song that’s better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more.” A duet of the song by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard reached number one on the country chart in 1983. Nelson also sang a version with Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan. Emmylou Harris released a version on a 1977 album. The definitive version is a duet by Nelson and Harris on the PBS show “Austin City Limits” that hasn't surfaced yet on CD or YouTube.