Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
In 1938, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh were cast to play the now-legendary roles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel Gone with the Wind. That same year, filming of Gone with the Wind began with director George Cukor’s stunning recreation of the burning of Atlanta, though, as fate would have it, Cukor was fired just weeks into filming by producer David O. Selznick. Victor Fleming, who was already busy directing The Wizard of Oz at the time, was brought in to finish the film. Unlike Oz, whose initial box office returns barely covered its production expenses, Gone with the Wind would quickly become the most successful film in the medium’s history. And in the American South, the fanfare that accompanied its release was unprecedented. The date of the premiere was declared a statewide holiday in Georgia, and President Jimmy Carter would later call it “the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime.”
Here in 2011, we are now 73 years removed from 1938. And, in one of those mind-bogglingly odd coincidences, 1938 itself is also exactly 73 years removed from the end of The Civil War in 1865. When I realized this fact, frankly, I was shocked. Gone with the Wind has always seemed so modern to me (it’s in color!) and so tangible - I was just talking to my grandmother the other day about when she saw Gone with the Wind in the theater during its initial run. In contrast, The Civil War has always seemed so ancient, so intangible – from those old inscrutable days before film or color photographs or the emancipation of slaves. The release of Gone with the Wind included such modern familiarities as a red-carpet premiere and Oscar nominations. The Civil War predated not only film but recorded music and the light bulb. Gone with the Wind has always felt like us looking back at them. But from now on, however hard it is for me to believe, Gone with the Wind will be closer in time to the era which it portrays than it will be to the ever-changing present day. It will forever be closer to them than it is to us.
Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta premiere
The effects of this realization were two-fold. First, I was forced to consider how long ago Gone with the Wind actually was. Yes, my grandmother may have seen it in the theater, but that era was still on the other side of a number of epic dividing lines in American history, most conspicuously the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind may have been glamorous, but it was also strictly segregated. Hattie McDaniel – who would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” – wasn’t even allowed to attend. And it wasn’t just the movie’s premiere that was marred by racism; both the movie itself and the novel on which it was based have been oft criticized for their startlingly overt racism. For instance, in Mitchell’s novel, Mammy looks over the ruins of Tara, her face “sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face.” Amid a slew of similarly derogatory racial stereotypes, Mitchell also refers to the KKK as a “tragic necessity.” The movie isn’t much better. Instead of trying to cleanse the film adaptation of racism, Gone with the Wind screenwriter Sidney Howard wrote to Mitchell during the adaptation process, praising her portrayal of black characters as “the best written darkies, I do believe, in all literature.” Bowing to pressure from outside groups, Selznick removed the word “nigger” and any reference to the KKK from the final film version, but the movie retains many of the same stereotypes that exist in the book.
The second and more important realization was the way Gone with the Wind’s proximity to The Civil War highlights the immediacy of that cataclysmic event. However foreign and antiquated slavery and its legacy of discrimination may seem to modern sensibilities, we aren’t that far removed from it. Just as my grandmother experienced Gone with the Wind firsthand in the theater, her grandparents experienced The Civil War firsthand. There is even a family legend that her grandfather, born in 1850, ran away from home during the war to join an Illinois regiment as a drummer boy. And in that sense, I am only two degrees of separation from a firsthand experience of The Civil War – both in terms of oral history and according to the rules of the Kevin Bacon game. But while my proximity to the Civil War era is a fascinating curiosity, I am sure that same proximity means something altogether different to the descendants of slaves, as well as to the descendants of slave owners.
An understanding of the immediacy of The Civil War and its legacy explains a lot about Southern culture. It’s pretty easy for white Northerners to think of The Civil War as a relic from a very distant past, especially for those of us who have come of age in an era where the internet elevates the primacy of the “now.” But the legacy of The Civil War is still very much a part of the fabric of the Southern United States. The war was, with a few notable exceptions, fought on Southern soil, and the remains of great battlefields are scattered all across Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee. Unlike in the North, where after the war it was possible to resume some semblance of normalcy, the war changed everything in the South. Much of the former Confederacy was left in abject poverty, and the twelve-year Reconstruction that followed the war entailed military occupation, political impotence, and rampant violence. Southern frustration with both Reconstruction and the outcome of the war itself resulted in the creation of the discriminatory Black Codes and reactionary vigilante groups like the KKK. And once Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, racial hierarchy and segregation were reinstated in the South through Jim Crow laws, which carried legal power for nearly 100 years, all the way up until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But even then, in the 1960s, the extension of Civil Rights to all Americans was not yet a given. For instance, before current Georgia Congressman John Lewis joined the U.S. House of Representatives, he also participated in the Freedom Rides.
A firebombed Freedom Ride bus near Anniston, Alabama in 1961
As historian Eric Foner points out, the process of post-Civil War Reconstruction remained incomplete until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, meaning that America’s healing process could not fully begin until the wound was finally legally closed – just one generation ago. That healing process is still ongoing, more so in some places than others, and whether or not it can ever be said to be complete, there will always be a great scar across America’s history. Nowhere is that scar more visible than in the art of the American South.
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Countless Southern artists have attempted to come to terms with The Civil War and the practice of slavery that led to it. In their work, the very real sense of loss that Southern whites felt following the demise of pre-Civil War civilization rubs continually and uncomfortably against the innate knowledge – possessed by both whites and blacks – that that civilization was inextricably bound up with a grave injustice. The rough edges where those two ideas intersect have produced a psychological friction that has proven the most fertile artistic ground in American history. Gone with the Wind is just one example. That friction also permeates Twain’s and Faulkner’s best novels, and it can be felt in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the most explosive artistic results of that friction was the creation of a new musical form called Rock and Roll.
For decades, people have debated about whether Rock and Roll is more indebted to blacks or whites, but there is no questioning the fact that it is an exclusive product of the American South. There was something volatile in the unique collection of dualisms particular to the heritage of that region: black and white, religious and secular, blues and country, hope and loss, pride and shame, oppressor and oppressed, God and The Devil, slave and free. That volatile environment produced Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and on and on – virtually all of the innovators of Rock and Roll. Once the Rock explosion had taken place, Rock ceased to be the exclusive property of the American South, increasingly becoming the shared language of young people all over the world. But as Rock music spread – from Memphis to Chicago to New York to London – it always retained a seed of the American South, a subconscious remembrance of the frictions that had given it birth. This is why you get a Brit like Robert Plant writing “When the Levee Breaks” (a loose adaptation of a song originally written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927). Or Minnesota native Bob Dylan writing the songs on The Basement Tapes. Or Canadian Robbie Robertson writing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Or Detroit native Jack White writing songs for country legend Loretta Lynn and the Cold Mountain soundtrack. Southern themes are inextricably linked with the music itself; they are part of its soul and essence. Through Rock music they have become part of a popular subconscious that extends far beyond the Mason/Dixon line.
Muddy Waters with Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson of The Band
The adoption and acceptance of Southern themes in Rock and Roll sometimes makes for complicated assessments of specific songs and artists. What does it mean that one of the most enduringly popular Rock songs, “Sweet Home Alabama”, defends former Alabama Governor George Wallace, the man who stood in the schoolhouse door to block the admission of the first black students to the University of Alabama? Why is it that the Confederate Battle Flag is protested when flown over public buildings, but accepted as the backdrop to a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Kid Rock show? Why do we embrace so many songs that are sympathetic to the slave-holding Confederacy? Those sympathies are no longer accepted as legitimate parts of political or sociological debates; why do they endure in Rock music?
At least part of the answer lies in the unique nature of art and how it is judged. Unlike other disciplines, such as history or sociology or politics, the merit of any piece of art is not solely judged according to the content of the ideas it expresses. For instance, due to its artistic innovations, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still regarded as a cinematic masterpiece even though thematically it is little more than a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film (it is widely credited with the Klan’s 20th Century popular revival). Similarly, people still listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” because of that infectious riff, the kick-ass guitar solo, and a sing-a-long chorus for the ages. People who enjoy “Sweet Home Alabama” aren’t, by and large, endorsing slavery or racial segregation; they’re enjoying the many other positive aspects of the song. But through that song, a defense of the indefensible lives on, echoing within the walls of countless bars around the world on a nightly basis (even more so now that it can be conveniently mashed up with Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”). This just doesn’t happen the same way in other disciplines. For instance, the historical analysis of the Dunning School of Civil War historians was the ruling authority on the Reconstruction Era for nearly a century. But once that analysis – which included the assertion that blacks lacked the mental capacity for democratic participation, that racial segregation was a necessity, and that therefore any attempt at Reconstruction was a doomed endeavor – was rejected in the 1950s and 60s, historians ceased to reference it, except perhaps as a cautionary tale. Dunning School treatises aren’t trotted out and read to the public in order to marvel at their exquisite prose or innovative logic; the flawed conclusions rendered everything else about them moot. Assessments of art tend to be more complicated.
The film version of Gone with the Wind opens with the printed narration, “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.” The assumptions with which the movie leads are as complicated as they are controversial. But due to its epic and powerful storytelling, Gone with the Wind, like many other complicated works of art, remains a classic. In 1997, its classic status was affirmed when it was ranked the 4th greatest film of all time on the American Film Institute’s much celebrated list. Yet, just two years later, The Atlantic ran a feature exposé detailing the sixty-plus years of anger and controversy surrounding its racial politics. Like the era it portrays, Gone with the Wind’s legacy will always be tainted by its racism.
But sometimes a work of art manages to negotiate the complexities of the human experience – even those of the American South – and arrive at an emotional place so pure and true that it is beyond controversy. The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a perfect example. It isn’t a political statement about The Civil War. Their live performances of the song weren’t accompanied by Confederate flags or any other such posturing. One might say that because it sympathizes with the Southern cause, the song must be inherently flawed. But the song’s power lies in the fact that, unlike Gone with the Wind, it doesn’t sympathize with the Southern cause; it sympathizes only with a particular Southerner. Virgil Caine – whose surname may or may not be an allusion to the Biblical character condemned to wander the Earth after killing his brother – is a human being: hungry, just barely alive. It isn’t necessary to ignore his Confederate sympathies in order to sympathize with him, because the song isn’t about his sympathies; it’s about his struggles – his hunger, his loss, his pain, his anger – which strike at the core of what it means to be human. Those struggles are what we relate to, and when Arkansas native Levon Helm communicates them in a voice that is at once both Southern and universal, it is almost impossible not to be moved. We may despise what the Confederacy stood for, but in that moment, as Levon sings “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, we are all Southerners.