Monday, July 5, 2010

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

Today is songwriter Robbie Robertson's birthday, and I wanted to look at a truly classic rock song.

"You take what you need and you leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best"
I haven't seen The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese's documentary about the last tour of The Band, and the more I read about that period for the group (somehow referring to The Band as the band seems weird) the more confused I get. Apparently Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson don't get along (or didn't a the time), and Helm stopped singing Robertson's songs after Robertson left the group. So while The Band kept going, The Last Waltz is still a musical event (or so I've read).

There is some dispute over the writing credits, but officially Robbie Robertson wrote it alone. The format of the song, its first person narrative, the chord progressions and time changes, have an importance to them. Perhaps because of the lyrics, or perhaps they give the lyrics more power--either way, it's interesting that I'm not alone in thinking the song was actually a traditional song from the 19th century.

Let's ease into this with a little Joan Baez, who took the song to its highest chart position (#3 in 1971) on The Muppet Show in 1980. It's sweet to see Baez having fun, but, um, who did her make-up?

I'd never heard Johnny Cash's cover until just now. I've got to admit I'm not feeling a lot of love for this version--perhaps because I find the piano arrangement so alien for his voice. Your mileage may vary.

Next up is Black Crowes: I like the fairly straight-forward way they embrace the song. Not bad at all, although I could do without Chris going so heavy on the Southern accent, his voice is great, he doesn't need to wear that much flair.

And finally, straight from The Last Waltz, the final performance of the song by The Band. Robertson left the band, but The Band continued; however, Levon Helm stopped singing the song, ergo its last performance by The Band. The Helm/Robertson rift continues, with Helm skipping The Band's induction into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame where Robertson performed with the rest of the guys. 

Happy birthday Robbie! Rock on!

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