We have been in a bit of a Civil War kind of mindset these days with all the 150th anniversary events going on up at Gettysburg earlier this month, so today we have a Civil War train song. The authenticity police out there may point out that the man who wrote this song, Robbie Robertson, is not a died-in-the-wool Confederate, but a Canadian. However, the song does accurately capture the plight of Confederate soldiers in the early days after Lee’s surrender. The video posted here is from The Last Waltz, a recording of the legendary last performance of The Band.
The song tells the story of Virgil Caine, who served “on the Danville train,” which undoubtedly refers to the Richmond & Danville line, a crucial rail corridor linked the capital of the Confederacy with North Carolina, and the rest of the rebellious nation. The last Union attacks on Petersburg were designed to sever this line and isolate the capital Richmond. Attacks on railroads were common during the war – Sherman’s men left a trail of “Sherman’s Neckties,” twisted and mangled pieces of track, all through their march through the South.
The rest of the song is a powerful portrait of the man’s struggles, describing his wife back in Tennessee, and brother felled by Union bullets. Indeed, its a testament to the power of the song, that it sounds like it could have been written in 1865 by some forlorn Johnny Reb. Even an unabashed Yankee like myself can appreciate the plight of the common Confederate soldier after the war, though if the youtube videos and comments on this are to be believed, the song is a bit of a magnet for the neo-Confederate types looking to tell their version of the war.
As a bonus version, here is bizarre cover of the song featuring Joan Baez and some muppets. She flubs the Stoneman’s cavalry line as well, substituting Stonewall Jackson, who fought for the South and who was dead for 2 years before the events of the song. I honestly don’t think I am old enough to understand why this exists, but its certainly an interesting rendition.