No, Liking "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Doesn't Make You a Racist
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In a recent essay, the writer Noah Berlatsky explained why he no longer listened to a song he had once loved: The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The song, written by Robbie Robertson with Levon Helm on lead vocals, appears on The Band’s eponymous 1969 album. Later famously covered by Joan Baez, it remains a staple on classic rock stations; Rolling Stone magazine placed it in the top 250 songs of all time.
The song is about a white Southerner, recalling the defeat of the Confederacy, and the loss of his beloved brother in battle against the Federals. In recent years, a reassessment of the American past has rejected the old “battle between brothers” narrative of the Civil War, in favor of a Manichean view of our nation’s bloodiest struggle as a fight between pure Good and unadulterated Evil. We are urged to consider that there nothing worth celebrating about any aspect of Confederate heritage; statues of its heroes, like Robert E. Lee, are to be removed, streets and schools renamed.
I have no problem with replacing monuments. Each generation gets to reassess the judgments of the one that came before, and I have no doubt we will be found lacking by our children’s grandchildren. I am, however troubled by Berlatsky’s argument about the Band’s song:
While music’s pleasures are formal, they’re also intimate. The power of pop is that it speaks to everyone at once and to each person alone. A hit record blares its message from every radio and whispers to you, specifically, right in your ear. A great song fills you up and lifts you out of yourself; it becomes you, and vice versa.
Which means that when you love a song, you tend to love all of it. When you take pleasure in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” you’re identifying with the melancholy and the loss of that Southern white guy, and feeling his sadness because he can’t own people any more.
In other words, empathy is dangerous, and art that encourages empathy towards the wrong sorts of people is, to use the favorite word of the Woke, “problematic.” The kids who paid attention in philosophy class will recognize that this is Plato’s argument about music. The great Athenian argued in The Laws that great care should be taken to prevent young people from listening to music that would direct them away from virtue:
The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives-but not the pleasure given to any and every hearer. We must take it that the finest music is that which delights the best man, the properly educated, that above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.
“Supreme in goodness and education,” in 2020, is less about where one went to school and more about the intersectionality of one’s politics and worldview. You can’t like a song because it makes you feel good – you can only like it if it makes you feel the right things. Empathy for a Confederate is not a right thing, according to Berlatsky. He argues it would be better if none of us listened to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and avoid the danger of taking pleasure in identifying with a fictional character who is deserving only of our contempt.
We are three days from Christmas, and many of us are singing or humming carols. Many of us are singing words we don’t believe. My favorite English language carol is “Joy to the World,” and as much as I love singing the Handel tune, in my agnostic mind I do not believe for one minute that “He rules the world with truth and grace.” When I sing it, I mean every word; I am swept along for a moment or two on a tide of what is, for me, happy myth. I am, for a moment, a believer – but that’s entirely fictive. When the song ends, I am no closer to accepting Christ as Lord and Savior than I was before it began.
In his famous hit Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn sings,
Now, Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, "Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said, "Ma'am, I am tonight!"
Cohn is Jewish — and his Jewishness is not compromised by a moment of gospel fervor in a club. Rather, the intense rush of the music opened him up, if only for a moment, to an experience outside of himself. His honest answer to Muriel’s query encapsulates music’s power to transform us, if only for a evanescent moment, and to make us more than the sum of our convictions and our certainties.
Singing gospel or Christmas carols doesn’t, in fact, make you a Christian, even if you feel a flash of faith as you listen. Singing along to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” doesn’t actually make you a Confederate sympathizer, even if you experience a transient empathy with this white Southerner who has lost his brother. My daughter, not quite 12, raps along to Cardi and Megan’s “WAP,” and declares herself a “freak bitch” with real conviction, but saying it doesn’t make it so.
Fleeting words and transitory emotions do not constitute our identities.
My right-wing friends worry that hip-hop will deform the minds of our children, just as Berlatsky worries that The Band song will enlist us as defenders of the Lost Cause. Both take Plato’s argument against pleasure for pleasure’s sake seriously; both underestimate the human ability to separate a feeling from a fact. When I ask my daughter if she believes the things she raps, she rolls her eyes. “The things I like don’t change who I am, dad. You should know better.” I tell her I do, but I’m just… checking.