The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Last night, I was given some education. I was listening to the NPR podcast On the Media, an episode about this song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” asking the question, “is this song a neo-confederate anthem?”
I’ll defer to the better writing of NPR staff to give the gist of it all, but I definitely recommend listening to the 20-minute episode, which you can hear here:
“It's been noted that Trump’s Big Lie and the violence it produced is reminiscent of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy — a potent narrative of grievance after the Civil War recasting the South’s stand as heroic and patriotic. Undergirded by racism, the Lost Cause apologia would stymie Reconstruction, justify decades of lynching and throughout the South, and prove as impossible to uproot as Kudzu.
When it comes to art identified with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band may be pop culture’s most celebrated, and misunderstood, contribution. Despite its charged subject matter, the song is rock-and-roll canon, listed as one of the best of all time by Time Magazine and Rolling Stone.
On paper, its lyrics read as if lifted from the Lost Cause playbook: a nostalgic retelling of the end of the Civil War history seen through the eyes of a downtrodden Southern farmer, laden with grief but not a trace of white supremacy. But the song is not what it seems, or what it seemed when it was first loosed upon the world. The Band’s lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, hadn’t logged much time in the South when he penned “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1969. But in the ensuing decades, some have claimed it as a Neo-Confederate anthem. This uncomfortable fact led Early James, a songwriter from Alabama, to alter the lyrics when he performed the song at an annual The Band tribute concert last summer. Inspired by last summer's racial reckoning, James sang about toppling Confederate monuments.
According to Jack Hamilton, Slate pop critic and author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, the meaning behind the song is both more and less complex than many fans know.“
As we head into the weekend of our most patriotic holiday (I do know it’s only Thursday…tomorrow’s song will be related as well), may we consider what true patriotism means.
Subversive God, Help us to claim and reclaim, tell and retell stories of truth and justice, even when they may seem obscured or mired in complication. May we be thoughtful, inspired, and activated.
We also lift up the following prayers shared during last Sunday's worship service:
For all those affected by the building collapse in Florida.
Even in our separation, God, help us to feel the deep delight of your love for all. Amen.