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Music

How Joan Baez ruined a classic from The Band for Levon Helm

Over half a decade after their official send-off in The Last Waltz and the final album featuring their classic lineup on Islands, legendary American roots rockers The Band reformed in 1983. This time it was without guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, but otherwise, The Band still contained four of the five classic members: Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel.

Now permanently restricted to the oldies circuit, The Band nevertheless brought the energy and well-known compositions of their glory years to appreciative audiences night after night. Clubgoers could hear classics like ‘The Weight’ and ‘Ophelia’ from a group of musicians who were still at the top of their games, and as an occasional opening act for The Grateful Dead throughout the 1980s, The Band could even still fill major arenas and stadiums from time to time.

One song that none of those audiences heard during that time of The Band’s career, however, was ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The wistful recount of the end of the American Civil War from the perspective of a destitute Confederate was appropriately performed by Helm as the only American in the group’s ranks. Helm’s southern drawl helped add authenticity and real heartbreak to the tale of a fallen nation and the pride that remained in many southerners’ hearts, no matter how clearly they ended up on the wrong side of history.

Once The Band reformed in the 1980s, Helm continuously refused to sing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Rumours frequently circulated as to why, with varying supposed reasons, including the potentially political incorrectness of the song’s alleged romanticization of the south and Helm’s diagnosis with throat cancer in 1998, all of which were unfounded.

The most popular rumour involved the schism between Helm and Robertson. Helm claimed in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire that he was responsible for much of the lyrical content on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, helping Robertson research the history of the Civil War during the song’s writing. When only Robertson’s name appeared in the song’s writing credits, it was assumed that Helm was rankled with the lack of acknowledgement and refused to perform the song after The Last Waltz.

According to Hudson, cited in an article focused on Helm’s legacy from American Songwriter back in 2012, Helm’s distaste of the song didn’t actually have to do with any kind of dispute he might have had with Robertson. Instead, Helm was so rankled by a more popular recording of the song from folk icon Joan Baez that he declined to sing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ for the rest of his career.

Baez’s version, originally released in 1971, less than two years after the original version was featured on The Band’s self-titled sophomore album, is more country focused and features some lyrical changes. A major hit in both the US and UK, Baez’s take on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ hit number six on the UK Singles Chart and number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in the autumn of 1971.

Helm’s exact reason for disliking Baez’s version was never confirmed and can only be left up to speculation. Perhaps he took issue with the changed lyrics, the same ones that he helped Robertson perfect. Perhaps he didn’t like that Baez’s version was so popular, potentially overshadowing his original performance. Maybe Helm didn’t actually mind Baez’s version at all. All we know is that Helm had his own reasons for not performing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ after The Last Waltz and took them to his grave when he passed away in 2012.

Watch Helm’s final performance of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ down below.