“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Robbie Robertson, The Band, 1969)
The poignancy and power of this song is that it is told from the point of view of a white Southerner during the last days of the Civil War. That it’s a protest song about war is not unusual of course, but that it speaks of the dignity and suffering of the Confederacy states is almost incredible in 1969. No doubt Robbie Robertson collaborated with Arkansas-born Levon Helm, who sings the lead in the Band’s recording, and learned much about the other side of the Civil War from Helm. It is hard to overstate how powerful this song was in the context of counter-culture hippie America. The heartbreaking beauty of the song speaks not just to all those Virgil Caines who suffered and died for something we all can and cannot truly understand. Although the studio version from The Band’s self-titled 2nd album is great, we must include Joan Baez’s live performance from The Midnight Special in 1973 (her cover was a Top 10 hit in 1971) and The Band’s performance in The Lastz Waltz, their farewell concert in San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day 1976.