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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 17, 2016: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

[May 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the releases of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, two iconic 1960s rock albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those artists and other 60s rock icons and songs. Please share your own rocking responses (or hazy memories) for a righteous crowd-sourced post!]
On a troubling 60s song, and why those problems do and don’t matter.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song on The Band’s 1969 self-titled second album (sometimes known as The Brown Album), but it feels very much as if it could have been released a century earlier. That’s certainly part of the point, as many of the album’s songs (such as the Depression-era farm song “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”) seek to capture Americana and its histories and stories in both subject and sound. But at the same time, “Night” doesn’t just portray the Civil War and its aftermath in an Americana sort of way—it does so very fully through the Lost Cause narrative, a sense of nostalgia and loss associated with the Confederacy’s defeat. That’s particularly clear when the song reflects the post-war deification of Robert E. Lee, in these lines: “Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me/‘Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E Lee’/Now I don't mind choppin' wood, and I don't care if the money's no good/Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest/But they should never have taken the very best.”
That Lost Cause narrative of Robert E. Lee’s destruction exemplifies why it’s still a problem for a rock song from 1969 to create and give voice to this 19th century character’s perspective. After all, while both the Civil War and Lee are parts of the distant past, the narratives and images of them remain ongoing and vital elements of the American present. We’ve seen far too many tangible and horrible illustrations of that fact over the last decade of American life, but in many ways the resurgence of such Neo-Confederate sentiment began in direct response to the Civil Rights Movement and other 1960s shifts. So for a 1969 song by a popular rock band to express such a Lost Cause take on Lee and the War (one that, to be sure, never mentions race or slavery at all—but if anything that’s even more frustrating, as it allows for the pretense that Old Dixie was centrally defined by anything else) was, to say the least, a deeply problematic choice, and can’t simply be dismissed as offering a slice of Americana or the folk tradition or the like.
And yet. Without minimizing any of those issues, I think it’s important to note that one of the central forms of rock (and all popular) music has long been the adoption of a certain speaker and perspective, one not at all the same as that of the artist or band and given it’s own room to exist and breathe. Steve Earle most definitely isn’t John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban”), and yet “John Walker’s Blues” is sung in the first-person. More saliently for this post, Bruce Springsteen is (I hope and believe) very different from notorious serial killer Charles Starkweather, and yet “Nebraska” is sung in the first-person. Neither of those songs, nor most other first-person ones, would work nearly as well or be nearly so compelling and evocative if they weren’t in that first-person voice, which allows for an intimacy (even, perhaps especially, an uncomfortable intimacy) that’s otherwise impossible to capture. I don’t think “The Night” comes anywhere close to the intimacy, nor the power, of the Earle and Springsteen songs—but contextualizing it in relationship to them can help us understand why they did what they did, even if we can and should still critique it as well.
Next RockStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other RockStudyings you’d share?

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