Two things happen lyrically in the chorus of the Band’s song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” First, we learn that “the bells were ringin’.” Then we learn that “the people were singin’,” and that what they were singing specifically was “Naaa, la-la-la na-na, la-la na-na la-na n’na-na.” The people in question are the Civil War–era denizens of a Tennessee town, and their wordless refrain is sung in gorgeous, raggedy harmony by the Band’s Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel.

Dumb question, perhaps, but precisely why are they na-na-la-la-ing?

I put this to Robbie Robertson, the song’s composer and the Band’s guitarist and primary songwriter, when I visited him at his Los Angeles recording studio.

“Because it’s a lament,” he said. “In the South, you would hear that kind of mournful singing at funerals and memorials.”

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” released 50 years ago this fall, is a curious entry in the canon of best songs of the rock era. It is a Confederate war veteran’s first-person narrative of the Civil War as the great Lost Cause, relayed without authorial judgment and written within a year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Yet the song, far from arousing ire, was received upon its release as an artistic triumph. “It didn’t even cross my mind that it might be a touchy subject, which is funny, because today it would be,” Robertson said.

Some Unlikely Champions

Indeed, in 2015, after nine black parishioners were murdered by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, the state of South Carolina took down the Confederate flag that had long stood on the grounds of its statehouse. And the deadly violence of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was touched off by a white-nationalist rally against the city’s planned removal of a statue of the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

But “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has not triggered comparable controversy or protest. The song has been covered not only by stringy-haired white Southern bands like the Allman Brothers and the Black Crowes but also by black artists—soulfully by Dobie Gray, and in stripped-down acoustic folkie mode by Richie Havens. Its highest-charting version, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, is by Joan Baez, who was a friend of King’s and led the crowd on the National Mall in singing “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” stands apart from most post–Civil War evocations of Johnny Reb because it does not stand as a monument to the Confederacy; rather, it is an immersive, sorrowful character study that never tips over into a celebration of its protagonist. I was curious to learn how Robertson pulled this off.

“It didn’t even cross my mind that it might be a touchy subject … because today it would be.”

The song’s parent album, simply entitled The Band, was the group’s second, and is widely regarded as their best. This month, to commemorate the album’s anniversary, Capitol/UMe will release a deluxe boxed-set version featuring alternate takes and live performances. The original 1969 LP, with its mud-brown cover and tintype-style black-and-white portrait of the group in its scruffy glory, is a landmark of what would come to be known as Americana. In contrast to the psychedelic, studio-enhanced artifice then in fashion, The Band’s instrumentation is mostly traditional and low-tech (fiddle, upright piano, brass), and its music, as Greil Marcus once wrote, “seems as if it would sound as right to a gang of beaver trappers as it does to us.”

Robertson in Woodstock, 1969.

Robertson wrote or co-wrote all 12 of the album’s songs, at a time when he and his four bandmates were living on the outskirts of Woodstock, New York, in rural Ulster County. “There was something about us living up in the mountains in upstate New York,” Robertson said. “It had nothing to do with New York State. It had to do with the mountains. And when you are up in the mountains, it makes you look and feel mountain-y, right?… You look in the mirror, and you’re kind of sepia tone.”

From this state of mind came a set of songs that were steeped in the agrarian American past. The South had fascinated Robertson since his boyhood, when, on clear, cold nights in his hometown of Toronto, his radio received the Delta blues and R&B music playing on 50,000-watt stations that transmitted their signals all the way from Nashville. In 1960, at 16, he took his first trip to the Mississippi Delta, playing guitar on a trial basis for Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-born rockabilly singer whose popularity was greater in Ontario than in the U.S., and whose backing group was called the Hawks.

“When you are up in the mountains, it makes you feel mountain-y.... You look in the mirror, and you’re kind of sepia tone.”

In the American South, Robertson was an outsider three times over: not only was he Canadian; he was of Mohawk and Cayuga descent on his mother’s side and Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry on his biological father’s side. (Robertson’s mother, Dolly, raised him with her husband, Jim Robertson, but Robbie was the product of a dalliance Dolly had had with a suave Toronto cardsharp named Alex Klegerman, who died young in a hit-and-run car accident.)

It was this true outsider status, the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright posited to me in an e-mail, that put Robertson in a position to write such a complicated song. Wainwright has been covering “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in his recent sets. By virtue of its author’s having grown up with “a certain distance from white America of the Deep South,” Wainwright wrote, “‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is one of the few pieces of music that sincerely captures a troubling yet real emotion from a very damaged part of the world without belittling it, for better or for worse.”

The American South exceeded Robertson’s expectations, bettering the mythology he had built up in his head. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, this is just like anywhere else.’ I could smell the music in the air, and it washed over me in an unforgettable, powerful way,” he said. On that very first trip, astonishingly, he saw Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin play live in a juke joint and witnessed a Jerry Lee Lewis recording session at Sun Records. But Robertson was most captivated by the visit he paid to the home of the Hawks’ drummer, Levon Helm, who, like Hawkins, was a native Arkansan.

Charismatic and Appalling

At the Helm homestead, in Marvell, Arkansas, Robertson was treated to the requisite Southern caloric-overload spread: fried chicken, sweet tea, ham, biscuits and gravy, bacon-wilted greens, pecan pie. The family’s patriarch, Levon’s father, was named Jasper Diamond Helm, or Diamond for short. Diamond was at once charismatic and appalling. He welcomed Robertson with open arms and duetted musically with his guest (the former on mandolin, the latter on guitar), but he casually dropped the N-word, passed wind performatively, and proclaimed with a sly grin, “Don’t worry, Robbie. Because the South is gonna rise again.”

Danko, Manuel, Robertson, Hudson, and Helm in 1968.

“When he said that, I got chills,” Robertson told me. “And so then, cut to years later. When I start writing songs, I go up into this attic of my memory, and I start pulling things out of my growing up that really made an impression on me.”

By late 1968, the Hawks had broken away from Hawkins, backed Bob Dylan on his ’65 and ’66 tours, and, after renaming themselves the Band, released an acclaimed debut called Music from Big Pink. Robertson was noodling around on his piano one day in Woodstock when he happened upon a set of chord changes that struck him as melancholy. Something about them brought to mind the words “the night they drove old Dixie down” and summoned memories of his time in Arkansas nearly a decade earlier: of Diamond Helm’s proclamation, and of a house he had taken notice of while driving on a country road late at night, set back in a field with a single light on.

Curiosity and Fascination

“I would think, ‘That’s the story. Who’s in that house? What are they doing?,’” Robertson said. “And that curiosity and fascination is what led me to Virgil Caine and his family.”

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” begins with the lines “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train.” But Virgil’s story didn’t come as intuitively as those doleful chords on the piano. Robertson played the progression for his four bandmates—Helm, bassist Danko, pianist Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson—and informed them of his one lyrical inspiration, the words that would become the song’s title. “Everyone was like, ‘O.K., that’s nice,’” he said. “But I needed to teach myself. Because I didn’t know the story that well. They didn’t teach that in Canada, the Civil War.”

Robertson was also keen for the song to be a showcase for Helm, “something he could sing as true as anything he’d ever sung in his life.” He asked Helm to drive him to the Woodstock Public Library. There, Robertson pored over some history books and familiarized himself with such figures as George Stoneman, a Union general whose Cavalry Corps destroyed train tracks that were used as supply lines by the Confederates.

Robertson also hit up Helm for any suggestions that would enhance the song’s Southern bona fides. “He said, ‘Well, just don’t mention Abraham Lincoln,’” Robertson said. “I hadn’t thought that I would, but evidently, that was Rule No. 1.”

It took several months for Virgil’s story to come into focus, but once it did, Robertson told it with remarkable economy—the song’s non-chorus lyrics amount to just over 150 words. Virgil is a poor farmer looking back at the war as the ruination of his family. He was working on the Richmond and Danville Railroad—“the Danville train”—when Stoneman’s soldiers ripped it up. His brother was killed by a Union soldier: “My brother above me,” as Virgil says. Does that mean his brother up in heaven, or his older brother?

“It was both. Two birds,” Robertson said. “I didn’t have much room. I had to get a whole movie in.” As for the lines “In the winter of ’65 / We were hungry, just barely alive,” Robertson explained that it is an allusion to 1965 as much as to 1865. “In early ’65, we were a bit on hard times as a band,” he said. “That was before we were with Dylan, and we were really struggling. So it just rolled off the tongue.”

I asked Robertson how much time had passed between the war’s end, in 1865, and Virgil’s narration. Is it five years later? Is it, say, 1890, when Virgil is in his dotage?

It turns out that Robertson had never considered this. But after pondering the question, he said firmly, “I think that it’s 10 years later.”

Levon in the Clothes of Virgil

By the time he had completed the song, Robertson knew he had something special on his hands. He was not always so sure of himself. He had gone into the recording of Music from Big Pink with reservations about “The Weight,” the album’s highlight and what is, today, perhaps the only Band song more enduring and better-known than “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

This time, Robertson harbored no such doubts. Nevertheless, he was still knocked for a loop by Helm’s performance of the song, which was, truly, more an actorly performance, broken and plaintive, than a standard lead vocal. (Helm would prove to be a formidable film actor, playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Michael Apted’s 1980 film, Coal Miner’s Daughter.) “I think that once Levon tried on the clothes of Virgil, it was an automatic reflex. I don’t think he could help it, you know?,” Robertson said. “So it was quite a moment for us, the guys in the band and our producer, John Simon, when we heard Levon’s interpretation.”

Helm in Woodstock, 1969.

Despite Diamond Helm’s assertion that the South would rise again, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” offers no such rah-rah promise. The last words Levon/Virgil sings before the final chorus are “I swear by the mud below my feet / You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.”

What Robertson was ultimately trying to capture, he told me, was the haunted feeling of photographic portraits of poor Americans from the period, before the natural human response to a camera’s presence was to preen or smile. “I was thinking, ‘Why, when photography was so hard, and the photographer was looking through the camera with the picture upside down, and he only got one shot, did the pictures have so much soul?’ That added up to something in me in music, and in songwriting.”

The boxed-set version of The Band will be released by Capitol/UMe on November 15. Robbie Robertson’s latest album, Sinematic, came out in September. He also composed the score for Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman.

David Kamp is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL