The recent loss of Levon Helm prompted me to watch this documentary on the making of The Band's second, self-titled, album last night. If you haven't seen anything in the Classic Albums series, they are well worth your time, especially compared to the Under Review series, which tends to range from moderately interesting to tediously mediocre. The cool thing about the Classic Albums docs is that, rather than alternating tantalizingly brief clips of the actual artists and padding the rest of the movie with critics pontificating about records (which can be interesting, but I can already do that myself), you always get some scenes of an engineer, producer or artist sitting at a mixing board, bringing tracks up and down, and pointing out cool details and talking about the actual process of making said records, which I find a lot more fun and enlightening. (Granted, I'm not always as keen on all of their choices of what to spotlight.)
The first two Band albums really can't be faulted: great examples of the ethic of putting a bunch of people in a room, giving them complete freedom to try anything out and pressing the record button. The little bits on the recording process are the exact sort of thing that excites me. The music is rich, emotional, and just weird enough to avoid the cliches of the legions of wannabe "authentic, rustic, and soulful" roots-rock AOR bands that sprouted like weeds in their wake. But there's always this big damn stinky elephant slumbering in the corner of the room when you put on "the brown album".
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a beautiful, complex song that can make you cry. You can take it as the story of an everyman character named Virgil Caine, swept up and destroyed by a particularly nasty and traumatic war while he tries to hold on to the same notion of patriotic pride that got him in the fix he is in. Family and friends wiped out, home devastated, and all he got for his efforts was a fleeting glimpse of Robert E. Lee. There's a subtext there that clearly resonated with a generation growing up with a decade of the Vietnam War looming over their heads, which is probably why Joan Baez was inspired to cut her own hit version of the song. There's also an undercurrent, much-discussed by The Band themselves, of attempted healing and empathy on behalf of an angry Boomer counterculture who, in the wake of the Civil Rights struggle, often detested all things Southern. If we are to have an impact on Virgil Caine, we must understand where he's coming from.
But a singer or songwriter's intentions are one thing, while the audience's response can be quite another. My own Kentucky-born dad, who normally wouldn't have crossed the street to spit on Joan Baez, loved her cover of "Old Dixie". To him, it was an anthem for the eternally aggrieved Southerner, forever oppressed by those damn Yankees. (And yes, Kentucky never actually seceded from the union, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms...I will say I was shocked to learn this fact in school because it sure as hell was never pointed out at home.) It didn't help that Baez took what was originally a mournful funeral dirge and turned it into a bouncy pop song which undiscerning ears could easily fold into the Lost Cause narrative, a surprising bit of accidental signification from such a normally politically conscious singer.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" presents a South with no black people and no slavery, just tragic, honorable white farmers suffering from losing a war. In itself, that's not an issue; the song tells a particular story from a particular point of view and no one song can take in the whole sweep of history. And I certainly don't have a clue how the story of those other impoverished Southern farmers of a different hue could have been honestly and naturally worked into the fabric of this song. All the same, their absence helps give the song meanings it was never meant to have. And so, as ever, we get played.
Again my mind goes to my just-finished Critical Study Of Popular Culture class at SFSU. The day we were meant to cover how race awareness impacts media, our lecturer started class with a disclaimer: "I don't feel I have the authority to address racism in the US, because I grew up in Canada, where those dynamics of race relations are very different." Four out of five members of The Band, of course, developed their love of Americana from the perspective of Canadians on the outside looking in. It's not surprising that Robbie Robertson would be deeply affected by meeting Southerners who talked about how "the South's gonna rise again" without fully comprehending all that that would imply. Meanwhile, the one American of the group, Arkansas-born Levon Helm, sings the song with such bottomless dignity and heart that Virgil's sad tale comes alive for you. Helm was by all accounts an absolutely beautiful guy, tapped into the deep cultures of both the black and the white South, nowhere even close to a racist. In fact, Helm was a perfect example of the sort of salt-of-the-earth white Southerner who fought racism and ignorance and brought black and white people closer together through the power of shared musical traditions, right up there with Steve Cropper and the also recently departed Duck Dunn. I acknowledge all of this wholeheartedly and am always deeply moved whenever I hear "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", but it still bugs the hell out of me.
Oh, and on the subject of the South rising again, can we finally admit that they already have done so, and have been essentially running the whole damn country for the last 40-plus years?
UPDATE: It's only fair to let the boys speak for themselves: