A few weeks ago, I saw the following question: “ Is The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down now part of The Forbidden Music canon? “. To which I instinctively replied: “Absolutely not!” I was a little indignant that the question had even been asked, but on reflection, I realised that it was the reaction of a writer; an artist’s instinctive defence of art. And I wondered.
First of all, let me say that I understand the instinct to quietly shun the music of those convicted of vile offences, lest one be thought to be defending the artist. That is not as clear-cut an argument as you might think, of course - those who would defend Wagner for his anti-semitism tend to point to the music as a creation apart from its creator; we might not have wanted to take tea with the man, but we cannot deny the quality of his work - can we say the same for Rolf Harris? I honestly don’t know the answer to that - how do we react to Two Little Boys, which Harris covered, or Tie Me Kanagroo Down, Sport, which he wrote? Do our reactions to those differ? What about the original of the former, or a cover of the latter? Do our reactions depend on the association with a man jailed for predatory sexual offences?
All of which has little or nothing to do with The Band, who stand accused of nothing more than writing and performing a song which is associated with the Confederate forces in the US Civil War. I’m choosing my words carefully, here - ‘associated with’ is as far as I’m prepared to go, and I believe that goes to the heart of the question.
You can read the lyrics a hundred times, and still not be clear exactly who Virgil Caine was, or what he stood for - he is at once a symbol of the defeated South, a spokesman of the forgotten infantry of every war, and an ordinary man mourning the loss of a brother; he is every soldier who fought on a losing side and every survivor of war who looks around him wondering if there can be a cause worth paying this price.
And he is all these things because of the way he was written. This is the beauty of fiction; it’s up to the reader - the listener in this case - to interpret Virgil Caine, to put our own frame around the picture. Is Virgil Caine a standard bearer for the Rebel cause, as he says his brother was, or was he an unwitting pawn in a game he had no interest in? He is, of course, both of these things, or neither, depending, partly, on the mindset you bring to the song - in one sense, if the song seems to you to be defiantly mourning the lost Confederate cause, you’ll see him one way; if it feels like a lament for the loss of innocence of a child soldier, the historical context will hardly matter.
For myself, I think the song presents us with an uncomfortable picture: just how different were the soldiers on either side? Did many of them believe passionately in the causes they were fighting for, or were they caught up in the supposed romance of battle? Were Union soldiers fighting to end slavery? Were the Confederate troops they faced fighting to retain it, or were they rallying behind a flag because their friends and neighbours were? The song doesn’t try to answer those questions; it leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
And, in the end, I think that’s what art is supposed to do. You might not care to see conflict through the eyes of the defeated, particularly if you consider their cause indefensible, but I don’t believe that we should censor those views; I think it is the purpose of art to make us look at uncomfortable things and understand our reaction to them, and there are vanishingly few songs in the canon which do that.
Ultimately, I do not believe that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down celebrates anything; I believe it mourns senseless slaughter, and reminds us that those who fought for a cause we still find abhorrent 150 years later were people not demons. I believe it fulfils the promise of good art, to make the audience think. However, I also believe that there are those who will read it as a rallying cry for causes which should have been lost long ago, but we cannot start censoring art because it can be misused, any more than I can force everyone to read the lyrics the way I do. What we can do is to continue to have these conversations honestly and openly, and to understand that a song written in the wake of the great victories of the civil rights movement can easily have its meaning blurred by the political climate of the next generation.
The song itself, however, hasn’t changed.