Originally posted August 4, 2009:
Just as one song leads to another, so does one book pull a reader to another. About three weeks ago, I saw a reference to 1942 by Winston Groom, a history of that one year, looking at how it shaped the history of World War II. (The name of the author might be familiar; he wrote Forrest Gump, the novel that was turned into the Academy Award-winning film.) When I went to the website of my local library to reserve a copy of 1942, I saw that Groom has also written a series of books about the U.S. Civil War.
So, after reading 1942, I worked my way through Vicksburg 1863, an account of the Union campaign to take control of the Mississippi River, a campaign that ended with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi. From there, I moved on to Shrouds of Glory, an account of an 1864 campaign into Tennessee by a Confederate army. All three of the books read quickly, and Groom tells the tales well. But what made the books pertinent to this space was something I ran across on Page 17 of Shrouds of Glory:
“In addition, [Union General William Tecumseh] Sherman had at his disposal some three divisions of cavalry commanded by Generals Edward M. McCook, Kenner Garrard, and George Stoneman . . .”
I stopped reading, knowing I’d just read something that was familiar to me. I looked again. And I saw it. “George Stoneman.” And I heard Levon Helm’s voice in my head:
“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
“Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again . . .”
The song, of course, is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which was included on The Band, the second album by the group that I’ve long called my favorite rock group of all time. I read long ago that Robbie Robertson, who composed the song, wrote it as a salute to the southern heritage of Arkansas-born Helm, who was the only non-Canadian in The Band. And I pondered the confluence of Groom’s book, Robertson’s song and Helm’s heritage at odd times for a few days.
And, as I almost always do, I thought about cover versions. I have covers of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Johnny Cash, John Denver and Richie Havens, but none of them really grab me (which, as regards the Havens version, is a surprise to me). I also have a version by the Allman Brothers Band that was included on the 2007 release Endless Highway - The Music of The Band, but I don’t post a lot of things released after 1999, and I didn’t hear anything in the ABB version that made me want to change my mind.
One version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that I do not have in my mp3 collection is the bastard cover by Joan Baez. Taking ludicrous liberties with Robertson’s lyrics – including turning Robert E. Lee into a steamboat – Baez got herself a No. 3 hit in 1971. But I won’t listen to it and won’t recommend that others do, either.
There certainly, are, no doubt, other covers of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but instead of wandering off and making a list of other performers who’ve done the song – as I frequently do – I decided on a different route this morning: I’d look in my collection for cover versions of other songs by The Band. And here are four:
“The Weight” by Joe Cocker from Mad Dogs & Englishmen [Fillmore East, New York, March 28, 1970]
“Upp Till Ragvaldsträsk!” by Lalla Hanson from Upp Till Ragvaldsträsk! 
“The Shape I’m In” by Bo Diddley from Another Dimension 
“Twilight” by Danko-Fjeld-Andersen from Ridin’ On The Blinds 
The Joe Cocker version of “The Weight” wasn’t included in the original LP release when the live album came out in 1970. The track was one of those added to the two-CD “Deluxe Edition” that was released in 2005. I have eighteen cover versions of “The Weight,” and probably the best-known versions are those by Aretha Franklin and King Curtis, both of which were included on anthologies of Duane Allman’s work. I decided to bypass those and share the Cocker version, as it’s pretty good and I’m not sure it’s all that well-known.
“Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!” is a Swedish-language version of “Up On Cripple Creek.” I know very little about Lalla Hanson. He’s a Swedish performer who was a contemporary of the members of The Band, and “Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!” (which translates loosely to “Up To Ragvald’s Swamp,” I think) was the title track of his first album. If you’re interested, you can Google his name and click the link to translate the Swedish Wikipedia page, which will offer a link to a translation of his home page; or you can jump with into the Swedish and see what you can glean. (I think I found the mp3 of “Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!” at The Band, a website that’s no longer very active. The mp3 is at a lower bitrate than I would usually share, but the unique quality of the track makes it worth hearing anyway.)
I got the Bo Diddley album, Another Dimension, from another blogger about the time Diddley died (June 2008). As usually happens with these things, I don’t recall where I found it, and backtracking from indices doesn’t provide me with any clues. Diddley does a pretty nice job on “The Shape I’m In.”
I’ve posted the Danko-Fjeld-Andersen album Ridin’ On The Blinds a couple of times (along with its predecessor, Danko Fjeld Andersen), but I can’t put up a list of covers of The Band’s songs without including the DFA version of “Twilight.” I never thought much of any of the versions The Band did of the song, but Danko’s reading on this version never fails to thrill me.