July 2012. My best friend and I packed into my 2003 VW Jetta wagon and headed out from Gettysburg, bound for Virginia. We were on Grantcation, a Civil War road trip of two former college buddies. Our mission was to wander battlefields in 100 degree plus heat, a trip which our wives endorsed willingly, I suspect, because they both knew it was far better for us to do it together than subject them to such unabashed nerdery.
As we pulled into Appomattox, my friend cued up The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down on das Stereo. We both chuckled and I turned it up to decibels more commonly familiar in teenager’s cars than my early-thirty-something-grocery-puller. The song finished, we got out of my VW and walked up to the McLean House to see where Dixie was, indeed, driven down.
The song was written by the Canadian songwriter Robbie Robertson and recorded by The Band in 1969. The legendary singer Levon Helm, an Arkansan by birth, sang the ballad, his transcendent raspy voice taking on a distinctness of desperation that breathed life into the fictional Virgil Caine’s story of disillusionment and defeat.
I should hate the song. Every part of me wants to write it off for its Lost Causiness or dismiss it as a romanticized ‘60s folk ballad. The Yankees are clearly the bad guys, the Old South something romantically lost, and Virgil Caine remains a rebel even in defeat. Despite my cold Northern cynicism, I can’t hate the song.
I think it has to do mostly with the associations of the song in my own memories. Sometimes songs have a power over our better instincts. I remember first discovering The Band when I was in my first Bob Dylan phase (the early teenage Dylan phase is one distinctly different from the mid-twenties ‘where is my career going’ Dylan phase which is also distinctive from the late 30s ‘I’m slouching towards middle age’ Dylan phase, but I digress). I got into The Band because a friend of mine’s uncle picked out Up on Cripple Creek and The Weight on guitar at a birthday party and I was immediately hooked by the pseudo-old-timeyness of their music. Here was group of old souls and I very much wanted to be two things as a teenager – older and more soulful – so I got into them.
The point here is that I identify the song more with my teenage years than I do with the Civil War historiography. The song reminds me of my own discovery of good music in the early 1990s. And it is a sad song about a serious war performed by a bunch of guys who looked shaggily cool. Through a trick of my own memory, I see the song as a nostalgic part of my own timeline when I was a nerdy kid in love with two things – folk music and history – and I can’t divorce the song from a period of my life when passions meant more than logic.
So when my buddy put on The Band’s great ballad as we took our tour of Civil War battlefields, we chuckled at the moment, but also, with a feeling of nostalgia for the times when the song was background music for our late night bull sessions in college – of smoky rooms, banter, and casual stupidity – and not in terms of what it says, if anything, about history.