by Lawrence J. J, Leonard
Deep seeded memories can be as happy as hugs, kisses, laughter, smells, and compassion. Alternatively, we can sustain images of cruelty, neglect or harmful incidents.
This was the mindset of Americans after the Civil War (1861-1865) digging the graves of honorable veterans. Our grandparents and great-grandparents and their forebears were devastated and torn apart by violent conflict in this land we call home.
Canadian composer Robbie Robertson and his music project, The Band, took the view that this aspect of America’s homegrown war deserved a closer look. Robbie had been working on the song with founding band member Levon Helm in Woodstock.
They researched the Union Army’s “Stoneman Raids” and developed a song about Virgil. It is from this poor southerner’s perspective that the 1969 ballad expressed the sadness of a citizen crushed by the might of his own countrymen’s military fury.
The sorrowful lament was unranked when The Band released the record. It was thoughtfully re-released as a cover by American folk singer Joan Baez in 1971. War is hell.
The #3 song of the Billboard Hot 100, “The night they drove old Dixie down,” spoke to the turbulent times of the sixties and seventies when family values, religion and government interference in people’s daily lives caused them to look to times past and loved ones no longer with us.
Baez’s version of the song causes Americans to be more mindful of social divisions and more hopeful for healing. Today is always the best day to begin forgiving, understanding and healing.
Lyrics: written by Robbie Robertson
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
The night they drove old Dixie down and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down and the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”
Back with my wife in Tennessee when one day she called to me
Said “Virgil, quick, come see, there goes the Robert E. Lee!”
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.
Like my father before me I will work the land,
and like my brother above me who took a rebel stand
He was just 18, 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
Copyright © 1960-2017 Lawrence J. J. Leonard All rights reserved.