Jul 052011

A quibble about the Mod’s recent open letter to Robbie Robertson, in which he said: “you’ve… …written perhaps rock’s greatest story song ever, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’” In the article linked to the Mod’s post, Bill Flannigan makes a similar assertion.

Now I like TNTDODD well enough (although it’s hardly among my favorite Band songs) but I don’t understand what the story is supposed to be. It just kind of runs through a bunch of Civil War images without any discernable plot (not unlike Thin Lizzy did with random Western images in the Cowboy Song). I would ask you to either explain the plot of this “story” to me or please refer to the song as “Rock’s Greatest Civil War Imagery Song” from now on.

In the meantime, I submit “Tom Ames Prayer,” one of a dozen or so songs by Steve Earle in which he tells a much more cohesive story than TNTDODD:

Everyone in Nacadoches knew Tom Ames would come to some bad end
Well the sheriff had caught him stealin’ chickens and such
by the time that he was ten
And one day his daddy took a ten dollar bill
and he tucked it in his hand
He said I can tell you’re headed for trouble son
and your momma wouldn’t understand
So he took that money and his brothers old bay
and he left without a word of thanks
Fell in with a crowd in some border town
and took to robbin’ banks
Outside the law your luck will run out fast
and a few years came and went
‘Till he’s trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent
And he realized prayin’ was the only thing
that he hadn’t ever tried
Well he wasn’t sure he knew quite how but he looked up to the sky
Said you don’t owe me nothin’ and as far as I know Lord don’t owe nothin’ to you
And I ain’t askin’ for a miracle Lord just a little bit of luck will do
And you know I ain’t never prayed before
but it always seemed to me
If prayin’ is the same as beggin’ Lord I don’t take no charity
Yeah but right now Lord with my back to the wall
I can’t help but recall
How they nearly hung me for stealin’ a horse
in Fort Smith Arkansas
Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down just like a cannon shot
And I went away quietly and I began to file and plot
Well they sent the preacher down to my cell
He said the Lord is your only hope
He’s the only friend that you gonna have
When you hit the end of Parker’s rope
Well I guess he coulda’ kept on preachin’ ’till Christmas but he turned his back on me
I put a home made blade to that golden throat and asked the deputy for the key
Well it ain’t the first close call I ever had
I’m sure you already know
I had some help from you Lord and the devil himself
It’s been strictly touch and go
Yeah but who in the hell am I talkin’ to, there ain’t no one here but me
Then he cocked both his pistols and he spit in the dirt and he walked out in the street

  14 Responses to “The Greatest Story Ever Told”

  1. cdm, you make a good point about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” lacking plot…if you don’t get chills over the collected imagery of the driving of Old Dixie down! I’m not a big plot guy as it is, so maybe I’m not the best judge of this stuff, but a glance at the lyrics to that Steve Earle song has way too many references to the Lord, daddy, sin, “the devil himself,” and chickens, for crying out loud! Without yet taking the time to follow the plot or listen to the song, that reads like the worst collection of “Southern” cliches imaginable. What’s the second-best story song ever told, Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”?

    Most joking aside, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” makes me feel empathy for the people whose “kin,” I would imagine, would grow up to write cliched songs about outlaws. It’s wrong that I harbor these stereotypes and can’t get past what’s really being said, but I appreciate that The Band’s song makes me feel guilty about harboring such feelings and not always seeing a group of people for who they are. Seriously, that’s a big part of what those possibly plot-free images do for me. “King Harvest Has Surely Come” has some similar effects on me.

  2. BigSteve

    TNTDODD isn’t really a story song in the sense that there’s someone singing “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” Those kinds of songs don’t work very well.

    When people use the term ‘story song,’ what they usually mean is that there’s a story behind the song. In The Band’s song the ‘story’ is basically this: My brother and I fought for the Confederacy, but only I survived. The war was horrific. Now I’m trying to get the farm going again, so excuse me if I don’t rush out and cheer because Robt. E. Lee is passing by.” The song consists of Virgil commenting on this situation from several angles (including some narrative about what happened towards the end of the war), but he doesn’t tell the story of the war itself.

    If the song is about anything, it’s about Virgil’s mixed feelings the night the Confederacy fell. People are singing, and The Band is singing that great chorus. It’s stirring, but the emotions that are being stirred are complicated. Happiness that the war is over? Sadness at what’s been lost? Lingering dreams of glory? Wounded pride? It’s beyond words, which is why the people sing lalalalalala….

  3. I think the story of a guy wandering through and getting the hell out of Nazareth in “The Weight” is superior to “Dixie.” But it didn’t stop me from using “Dixie” in a lesson back early in my teaching career.


  4. I think Steve nailed it, and the definition of a “story song”, as well.

  5. BigSteve’s explanation is excellent. It sums it up really nicely and points out nuance that I never realized existed. And the Mod’s tear-down of the Steve Earle lyrics made me laugh out loud.

    But Mod, you should get past the trappings of the ‘chickens and such” and give a fair shake to the “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” nature of the lyrics.

  6. I will take some time to work on my shortcomings re: Earle, cdm. Over the weekend my wife made a somewhat stunning (owing to her relatively level-headed personality, compared with me own) regarding Earle that I’ve been meaning to investigate and write up.

  7. bostonhistorian

    Nice work BigSteve!

  8. alexmagic

    My reaction to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has been heavily influenced twice in the last few years. First, this, inexplicably, was the song that came on the jukebox and got everyone in the bar drunkenly unified right after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

    More recently, though, I can never hear the title of the song, or even think about The Band, without thinking of a Scharpling & Wurster bit on The Best Show on WFMU wherein a Wurster character (Bryce, a Grateful Dead superfan) is convinced that the song’s title is “The Night They Drove Old Dick C. Down” and that it was about the time Levon Helm gave Dick Cavett a ride from Woodstock to Manhattan.

  9. misterioso

    Good analysis by BigSteve. But, as much as I admire this song, it might have been nice if the author had, somehow, balanced the pathos of the defeat of the South with the fact that Virgil Cane was fighting for the right of white people to own black people.

  10. vicki lawrence’s the night the lights went out in georgia was the first 45 i ever purchased. 69 cents at grants.

  11. that’s more than $3.50 adjusted for inflation.

  12. Isn’t that the subtext?

  13. Don’t know if that makes mp3’s a bargain or not — the 45s sound better when they are hacked up.

    totally off topic but good point on inflation — there’s a guy next door to me who “can’t fathom” how much I pay for Nats baseball tickets — and remembers when he used to pay 5 bucks to see the old Senators — so his $5 in 1969 dollars is now $30 — so screw him, and I probably have way better seats near the b-a-r.

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