The Saddest but Greatest Chorus: The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969)

A musical tone can be appreciated as beautifully smooth (or nicely husky or buzzy) compared with all the sounds that don’t register as musical.  But the most important property it has is its categorical distinction from “background” sound.  Like articulate speech but in a more basic, physical way, it forces itself into the auditory foreground as an imperative call, cutting through the static, asserting publicity, enlisting you.  It’s the siren principle, the battlefield bugle.[1]   When you sing, you summon all hearers (overriding whatever they were talking about), understanding that you and they commonly belong to a responsive kind, like prairie dogs.  This is us.  Listen up.

Once the siren-sound has drawn us together, singing leads us into a collaboration of thought.  Collaboration itself (that tremendous thing!) is made thematic and palpable in a song’s sing-along chorus, perhaps most profoundly in a “la la la” or “na na na” chorus that requires no particular way of putting things.

How amazingly sad, then, to use the permissive “la la la” approach to sing along with a hopeless collaboration, the cause of the Confederates in the American Civil War.  The cause is defunct and no one can seriously be asked to embrace it.  We know that.  We know also that certain people don’t know that and are capable of saying “The South will rise again” without irony.  In spite of all this, we hear the song and answer the summons to sing together, and it’s weirdly encouraging to feel that we’re all here and ready to undertake something together even if we sure-bud can’t be seceding from the Union again.  (Perhaps this weird appeal is shared by all the celebrated lost causes.)

The wonderful musical and lyrical qualities of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” have been extensively discussed.[2] I would just add that the vocal performances in the chorus by Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko teach us this non-straightforward collaboration of singing for the Confederacy by entering eventfully, not as mere sweetener, and remain stubbornly unhomogenized (hear Manuel come forward near the end):

“They Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” first chorus

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[1]  It must be admitted that we also have the counter-principle of Muzak which gives music a normal background position.  But I can’t imagine that Muzak is as old in the human experience as the musical summons.

[2] But has anyone observed how Levon Helm’s visionary drumming brings in the chorus like a dirge and a fireworks show at the same time?

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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