A. Canadian Robbie Robertson. The song talks about the suffering of the Confederate soldiers and civilian=s at the last days of the American Civil War. It recounts several dramatic, at least from the Confederate point of view, events, such as the Siege of Petersburg, the evacuation of the capital of Richmond and the capture of President Jefferson Davis. Robertson wrote that, when he visited the ex-Confederate States, he often heard people saying “The South will rise again” and he was touched by it.
Robertson stated that he had the music to the song in his head but at first had no idea what it was to be about. Then the concept came to him and he did research on the subject. Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas, stated that he assisted in the research for the lyrics. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm wrote, “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”
Dixie is the historical nickname for the states making up the Confederate States of America. The first lines of the lyrics refer to one of George Stoneman’s raids behind Confederate lines attacking the railroads of Danville, Virginia at the end of the Civil War in 1865: “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train, Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…”
Frequently appearing on lists of the best rock songs of all time, it has been cited as an early example of the genre known as roots rock. Joan Baez recorded a cover of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971.
The song was originally on their self-titled second album and is sung by The Band drummer Levon Helm. The Band frequently performed the it in concert, and it is included on the group’s live albums Rock of Ages (1972) and Before the Flood (1974). The song was included in the concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 which was recorded in the documentary film about the concert, The Last Waltz, as well as the soundtrack album from the film.
The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz (1976). Helm refused to play the song afterwards. Although it has long been believed that the reason for Helm’s refusal to play the song was a dispute with Robertson over songwriting credits, according to Garth Hudson it was due to Helm’s dislike for Joan Baez’s cover version.