The other day in class we showed the first two episodes of “Eyes On the Prize,” theaward-winning PBS documentary on Civil Rights movement that was made in the 1980s, and on my way home from work I heard that, while I was busy watching legions of white racists in Mississippi and Alabama throw bricks at tiny school children in the mid 1950s, the USA had bombed Syria and surreptitiously confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
My takeaway? America is full of mean people and injustice, and it always has been. Nothing changes, it just gets covered up for a time and then breaks out again, like measles or bamboo. If you’ve ever looked at a comments thread on literally any YouTube video, the only conclusion you can come to is that we live in a mentally ill society that deserves to be blown to smithereens.
The news made me want to go out and protest the shit out of something. That’s what you should do in the face of cruel and idiotic public policy. It’s what people did after My Lai and the Tet Offensive. It’s what we did a few weeks ago, with the Muslim ban, and it worked: it got overturned. It’s a thing. But it doesn’t seem to be happening now; people are too confused. People seem to be giving other people the benefit of the doubt. People don’t know which side they’re on.
One night, long ago, the USA bombed Kuwait while I was at a Replacements show. The band, one of the least political of its ilk, mentioned it before playing the song “Sonic Reducer” as an encore; I remember leaving the gig at the Warfield and walking into a small band of protesters on Market Street.
That didn't happen in Oly after the dropping of MOAB, and not just because there’s a windy rain storm going on. I think everyone is waiting for the Science March as well as sunshine. But I feel like sunshine is gone in my life forever.
My sense of unease may be heightened by the fact that the courses I am teaching this year are, quite frankly, downers. Necessary downers, but nonetheless. This quarter I’m co-teaching one on Civil Rights, the Counterculture and the rise of Counter-conservatism. My job is the Counterculture, with especial attention paid to the music; my colleague, Geoff, is a historian whose sandbox (as we say in academia) is the history of the American South. That being the case, he opened class with a two hour lecture on Reconstruction and it made me think of the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Now that’s not protest music – unless you consider protest music in the widest possible vein, as in, ‘music that comments on the effects of historical events.’ But it seemed worth playing to a class full of young people who had actually never heard it, as it is, in fact, about Reconstruction. The only question was, ought I to play the original version by the Band, or to use the cover – and hit – by Joan Baez. To decide, I asked my Facebook friends.
The first six responses said, simply, “JOAN.” Then the tide turned towards the Band in a flood of argumentativeness that could hardly be stemmed: "Musically the Band itself could be seen as a reactionary response to the psychedlic and never-since-as integrated influences on the pop music of the time -- I'm thinking of top-40 as well as say Jimi Hendrix or Sly and the Family Stone," opines one friend, while another argues "...the song is not explicitly a reactionary protest number in that slavery, African-Americans, etc are never mentioned at all, so it's hard to see it as a direct response to the rise of soul and funk in the '60s unless you're going to pitch pretty much ALL white Southern music as reactionary and urban black music as progressive."
Meanwhile, many other commenters point out, as Greil Marcus once did, that Joan Baez's version turns the line "There goes Robert E. Lee" into "There goes THE Robert E. Lee," as if he is a steamboat churning up the Mississippi River.
God, I love Facebook! How did I live without it? At least, I love my particular iteration of it – I think it’s important to remember that every person’s Facebook page is different: it depends a lot on your curation. If in some ways it is the product of a life well lived, then I have lived the best life ever. If it is just some kind of shadow-version of real life, the reflection on Plato’s ever present cave-man wall, then, well, I don’t know: I still think my cave man wall is smarter, better-mannered and more intelligent than most.
But back to the Band, whose version I played in class after all. (Joan fans should know she has gotten a fair share of time already, having contributed greatly to earlier lectures on Civil Rights protests.) In the book Mystery Train, the critic Greil Marcus described the song as being less about the Civil War than about “the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Perhaps this echoes Robert Penn Warren’s claim that the Civil War is America’s only “felt” history, i.e. history lived in our national imagination, or as Pierre Nora once put it, a way to participate emotionally in history. It may not be protest music per se, but “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an important reflection of popular memory of the Civil War.
|Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series|
Marcus went on to say, “It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”
You know that quote by William Faulkner, “the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past”? So many things this year have conspired to remind me of that that I don’t feel I even need to name here. Clearly, the repercussions of the Civil War are still with us, which is reason enough to listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again. The gap between everyone's truth has gotten so large. Is there anyway we can close it now?