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September 19, 2017

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Hmm, I have a different take on the references in the lyrics (and I prefer the Joan Baez version): Why the use of the definite article in the song? It might be because the reference is not to Lee himself but the steamboat named after him traveling along the Mississippi River, which makes sense given the fact that he is now “back with [his] wife in Tennessee” (i.e., looking back, as an 'ex-Confederate soldier' on the civil war and what occurred). And the stanza in which we read that “they should never have taken the very best,” appears to be a reference to the way some Union soldiers behaved, plundering and pillaging during and after the heat of battle, again, not to Robert E. Lee who, after all, was not “taken” after the war (see the material in his Wikipedia entry on ‘postbellum life’).

Steve L.

There is a controversy over whether the lyrics refer to "the Robert E. Lee" or simply "Robert E. Lee." The original recording by The Band seems to omit the article, while Joan Baez clearly includes it. (She has acknowledged changing the lyrics, however.)

I agree with you, Patrick, that "the very best" does not refer to Lee. More likely, it is a reference to Caine's brother, mentioned in the following stanza, who died in battle.

Alan Gunn

"The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" also mentions George Stoneman, a Union cavalry general. But Joan Baez's version, which I think was the most popular, got it wrong. She had heard it sung but hadn't read the lyrics, so the original reference to "Stoneman's cavalry" became "so much cavalry" in her version.

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