In the Bible Cain slew Abel and East of Eden he was cast. You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past. – Bruce Springsteen
Here is the third Verse of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down:
Like my father before me I will work the land
Like my brother above me who took a rebel stand
He was just 18, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet, you can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.
The ambiguity of the earlier stanzas continues: many people have heard the first line of this verse as “Like my father before me I’m a working man.” Still more: as Virgil sings of his dead brother he makes a pun on the small mischief people used to describe as “raising cane.” But the real issue here is that, by repeating his surname (and his brother’s surname), Virgil evokes another Biblical myth, the original war between brothers that we all know as the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the model for all subsequent wars.
Cain was the first human to be born and Abel was the first human to die. Cain, refusing to be his “brother’s keeper,” murdered Abel out of envy. Cain had offered “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” But God favored the shepherd Abel, who offered “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”
“The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel)” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Was it God, as Robertson sings, who had taken the very best? And when he heard of the subsequent murder, he cast the first curse:
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Still, Cain received a mark of protection from God, who allowed him to marry and have children. In pop music lyrics, however, the mark is usually seen as something negative:
The landed aristocracy, exploiting all your enmity,
All your daddies fought in vain,
Leave you with the Mark of Cain. – Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls
Virgil Caine’s land will no longer support his family; he must chop wood to make ends meet. So we ask again, whom is he addressing when he cries, “You take what you need and leave the rest”? Nine years after The Night, Bruce Springsteen recorded Adam Raised a Cain, which include the lyrics at the top of Part Two Part Two and the ambiguous image of the father possibly raising a cane to strike his son.
Ambiguity and our need to resolve it produces the emotional force that drives some songs and some myths. And there is irony here as well. According to Shi’a Muslim belief, Abel (Arabic: “Habeel”) is buried in the Nabi Habeel Mosque west of Damascus, Syria. Here in 2022 the latest war of brothers continues to rage, a war that would not be happening without American money and armaments.
Below the Cain and Abel story lies another one, as I write in Chapter Nine of my book. Our economic myths follow from our historic assumptions about the infinite resources of an “empty” American land. However,
In truth, modernity assumes scarce resources – fuel, food, education, power, freedom, knowledge and especially love. These assumptions begin in our monolithic creation myth, the expulsion from Eden, and lie, along with the compensating belief in progress, at the core of all western thought. The Old Testament provides occasional visions of plenitude (manna from Heaven); but these are followed by laws and restrictions, which, when disobeyed, result in expulsion. It is, writes (historian Regina) Schwartz, a world “where lying, cheating, stealing, adultery and killing are such tempting responses to scarcity that they must be legislated against.”
Biblical stories of fathers and sons are utterly rooted in scarcity assumptions. Isaac cannot bless both of his sons; apparently there isn’t enough to go around. Forced to compete for the blessing, they establish a pattern in which the father rejects the loser. Earlier, Jehovah preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s. Even God doesn’t have enough blessing to satisfy everyone. Jealousy, rivalry and murder all follow. This core text of monotheism defines identity as something that is won through competition, at someone else’s expense.
More ambiguity: the line “…but a Yankee laid him in his grave” fits the meter of the song, and it certainly sounds authentically archaic. But Robertson could have written it differently and still fit it into the rhyme and meter. In the context of fratricide – death at the hands of one’s own brother – “laid him in his grave” actually sounds like a gentle act of respect and reverence, a holy ritual. Indeed, the phrase doesn’t clearly indicate that the Yankee had actually killed Virgil’s brother, only that this “proud and brave” teenager was dead. Indeed, as we consider the mythic implications, the “band of brothers” on either side of the firing line have much more in common with each other than they do with the plantation owners and industrialists – the fathers and the father gods – who have set them against each other.
To follow the Biblical tone of the stanza, all we really know is that a jealous god, holder of a very limited capacity for blessing, required – repeatedly – that brothers compete with each other. Why? To prove their worth, or simply for his own amusement? What if history and theology didn’t literalize this image? What if we knew the Latin root of “compete” as “to strive together,” or “to supplicate the gods together”? What we do know is this: that even generations later, Abraham, a member of this same family, would be willing to sacrifice his only son to prove his worth before this same god.
Our American myth of (white) brother-against-brother offers us a seemingly happy ending. The nation was torn asunder and then reborn when Reconstruction ended. But it could only do so by colluding in a newer but equally toxic story in which the original wounds of racism were covered over rather than healed. The wounds sat festering for another hundred years, as I write:
Fratricide perfectly describes the impact of the war upon the American soul, which more than that of any other nation is split against itself. The word evokes such emotion precisely because Americans still hope to heal that split in the psyche. Contemporary battle re-enactments express this longing. Because the issue of race went unresolved, however, the nation achieved only a superficial healing.
We are back to the sacrifice of the innocents, and I invite you to consider the first verse once again: In the winter of ’65. The song does not say eighteen-sixty five. Am I seeing too much here? Of course the song is about the American Civil War, and of course it describes the last year of the war. And yet…Robertson wrote it when the Viet Nam war was at its height, when a hundred Yankees were being laid in their graves every week. And yet…for every American death there were hundreds of Vietnamese deaths. His original 1969 version was followed two years later by the Joan Baez version, which, sung by a woman and civil rights activist, added both pathos and more paradox. Martin, Malcolm and the Kennedys were dead; perhaps, writes Jonah Begone, the song could speak to a larger sense of defeat for the left, a feeling of disappointment of early promise that had gone unfulfilled.
Stoneman’s destruction of Virginia’s infrastructure and burning of its crops, resulting in mass starvation of the civilian population, was a war crime. This is known in international law as “collective punishment” for individual actions. It’s what the Nazis did to countless towns such as Lidice. It’s what the Hebrews did to the population of Jericho when “the walls came tumbling down”, and it’s what their descendants do every time they invade Gaza.
In 1965 Vietnamese peasants were “just barely alive”. Massive aerial bombardment and spraying of toxic herbicides over huge swaths of the country was amounting to genocide. Americans may be the only nation in history to declare the concept of “free fire zones”, and they may have learned it in 1865.
1965 saw resistance in Viet Nam and also in the streets of Watts, California – a century after the fall of Richmond, the Civil War was still raging. A half-century further on, urban police, the descendants of the Southern slave patrols, with few exceptions, can still murder an unarmed Black man with impunity.
In mythological terms, to “drive Dixie (or anyone) down” is cata-strophic, to be turned away from our obsession with the light, with the gods of the sky, with the myths of growth and national purpose, with the flights of the ego and the spirit, and back towards soul. It is to be humiliated, to return to contact with the humus, the earth. But it is also to be offered the possibility of grieving, reconciliation and healing.
So the song certainly evokes Hebrew myth (Cain & Abel), Greek myth (Kronos) and American myth (progress, scarcity). And now we can see why the narrator’s first name is Virgil. The Roman poet Virgil is best known for having composed the Aeneid, the epic that tells how Rome was founded by the last survivors of Troy, another city that, like Richmond, invaders had destroyed. A thousand years later, Dante, in The Divine Comedy, chose this same Virgil to be his guide in the underworld, the place of soul-retrieval.
Ultimately, Virgil Caine’s helpless lament is not only for the South. It is for America’s soul, and this is why The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down remains such an emotionally powerful piece of art. In a culture that continues to deny death, that condemns a quarter of its children into poverty, that refuses (like the Southern oligarchs) to accept that its time is over, that enacts the old myths of the sky gods at every opportunity, that is (in W.S. Merwin’s words) “up to its chin in shame, living in the stench it has chosen”, that has so few grief songs, we need to hear it and sing it out loud.
We need to think about Joshua Chamberlain, a general in the Union Army and hero of the Gettysburg meatgrinder, wounded six times. He was present at the awesome spectacle of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865, a week after “Richmond had fell.” He looked closely, perhaps for the first time, at those starving “Jonnie Rebs” who so recently had been on the other side of the firing line:
Before us in proud humiliation stood…men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now…thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond…What visions thronged as we looked into each other’s eyes!…On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!…How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!…For they were fellow-soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms…We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces…and think of personal hate and mean revenge…Forgive us, therefore, if from stern, steadfast faces eyes dimmed with tears gazed at each other…
A fine place to end. But one Confederate general refused to join the ritual of reconciliation:
You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.
One hundred and fifty-seven years later, we admit that the South really didn’t lose the Civil War and that the Lost Cause myth is still alive. Many Southerners see The Night and other songs such as Sweet Home Alabama and I’m A Good Old Rebel as emblems of regional pride.
However, a study of history and psychology should also remind us that it took – and continues to take – massive amounts of money and continuous, overwhelming marketing to manipulate the white working class into ignoring their own best economic interests and the possibility of solidarity with other oppressed people in favor of the politics of hatred. This fact alone should remind us that people are not inherently biased against each other. We have to be taught to hate.
And not all Southerners are charged by the old myths. One challenge for an artist, especially one born to privilege, is to reframe them, or in this case to re-write song lyrics, as Early James did with The Night.
In the first verse, he changes a time I remember oh so well to a time to bid farewell. His version of the chorus, instead of mourning that downfall, is Tonight, we drive old Dixie down.
Most notably, in his final verse, he rejects both the Lost Cause and the myth of the Killing of the Children:
Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand
Unlike the others below me, who took a rebel stand
Depraved and powered to enslave
I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
That monument won’t stand, no matter how much concrete…
What do we conclude from all this? We need as many grief songs as we can find. We need to constantly interrogate our mythic productions (including popular music) and reframe them for our children. And as for our history of demonizing the “Other”, I like what the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said: “There are no others.”