Song Analysis: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
The song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, reveals a sad yet true depiction of the devastating effects of the American Civil War, the most destructive war in the history of the United States of America (Atack & Passel 53). The song portrays the perspective of Virgil Caine, a confederate rebel who witnesses the defeat of Confederate States during the latter half of the Civil War (Robertson). At first glance the song seems to echo the daily struggles of civilians who are trapped in conflict zones. However, a more in-depth observation of the lyrics invites the listener to consider complex themes such as the origins and causality of war, the socioeconomic impact of war and the influence of different actors in war. Through analyzing the lyrics of the song, this response paper will demonstrate the gradual decrease of human tolerance towards violence and conflict. Furthermore, this lyrical analysis shall illustrate the ever changing nature of warfare and states within the contemporary structure of interstate relations.
The first four lines of the song set the context of the story that is being unfolded. The Danville Train that is mentioned was the main supply line of the Confederate States, which connected resources from the Confederate capital to all their territories (Atack & Passel 55). This supply line was “torn up” by the Union in their attempt to weaken the Confederate Rebels (58). This had devastating ramifications for the Confederate government, and also all the civilians caught in between the conflict. As depicted by the lyrics of the song, the blockade of supplies resulted in famine within the Dixies (Robertson). Today most of the international community would not tolerate the violation of such basic human rights, established by the United Nations Deceleration of Human Rights. As argued by Pinker, this is due to the fact that violence and violations of human rights are universally decreasing (Pinker). Although it is true that violence has not completely been eradicated, as evident by contemporary global conflicts, this truth does not justify the argument that modernity has in fact resulted in an increase of violence. Critics of modern political development, who romanticize the past, inaccurately assume that humans by nature are peaceful (Pinker). They use modern instances of violence to portray their arguments, however these individuals fail to recognize how technological innovation has allowed for detailed recording of all acts of violence (Pinker). The uplifting reality is that violence in the past would dwarf cases of violence in the 21st century. Thus, this song illustrates the growing decline of violence and conflict as a whole.
Furthermore, the chorus paints an image of bells ringing and people singing. In the context of the song this image represents the ringing of the bells during the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, following the defeat of the Confederate army (Atack & Passel 56). In the past bells were used as early warning systems, they were civil services that a sovereign provided to their subjects. According to Hobbes, these civil services are established through social contracts, in which a sovereign takes his subjects’ freedoms, in a promise to protect them from the brutish conditions of the state of nature (Hobbes 24). The ringing of the bells demonstrates a last ditch effort a sovereign to warn his subjects about his failure to protect them from violent deaths. Thus, the bells showcase the ensue of anarchy as the social contract between the sovereign and his subjects is dissolved. In the second verse, the authors of the song also state “you take what you need and you leave the rest” (Robertson). This also further portrays the anarchical system of human relations within the state of nature, as portrayed by many realists such as Hobbes. According to Charles Tilly these constant references to anarchy and chaos that are caused by war, are nothing more than “processes of state making” (Tilly 172). Tilly argues that states are nothing more than organized-criminals who monopolize the use of force within a region, in order to establish themselves as the legitimate authorities of a sovereign state (175). Tilly claims that states participate in four main activities: War Making, State Making, Protection and Extraction (181). Based on Tilly’s perception on the origins and actions of modern states, he would argue that the American Civil War was a process of State Making, where the legitimate authority within the U.S.A eliminated their rivals, within the territories of their sovereign nation (181). Though it is important to note that not all aspects of Tilly’s argument are applicable to the contemporary understanding of sovereign states and the process of statecraft. In the 21st century many argue that “in wars there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat”, due to universally held notion that costs of war are unbearable (Waltz 2). Though in the past this was not the case, because although wars in the past also had socioeconomic costs, they had definite winners. The Union was the “winner” of the Civil War, because they became the legitimate authority within the USA. This is portrayed by the rhythmic singing during the chorus of the song, which might suggest the celebration of the fall of the Confederate States. Thus, it is evident that our conceptual understanding of was and its causality, as well as the nature of states are constantly changing.
In conclusion, the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” sheds light on complex themes of war and human suffering. Through analyzing the lyrics of the song and drawing parallels with a variety of political theories, this response demonstrated the gradual change in human tolerance towards violence. It illustrated that as whole the 21st century has witnessed a significant decrease in cases of violence, because our understanding and justifications for intra and inter-state wars have been radically altered. More broadly, this also reveals that the international system of global affairs is not as anarchical, as argued by neo-realist such as Kenneth Waltz.
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Waltz, Kenneth Neal. Man, the state, and war: A theoretical analysis. Columbia University