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FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: This life story begins in 1973 (kind of) – part 27

‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

For the two years prior to our re-crossing this river of '73  (although we recently had been reminded that no man crosses the same river twice),  Cheyenne and I had been busy reading great novels together, something brought on initially by the world’s standing still, all together, in the year 2020. It was in the Spring of 2023 that Cheyenne and I were putting the finishing touches on our favorite read, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

“Popman,” he said, as we neared the end of the novel, “the more you tell me your story, the more it reminds me of what’s going here in this novel – not the storyline but the culture, the Southern touch, you know.”

I smiled at that observation because I had had that thought many times.

Cheyenne and I had settled that Spring afternoon into my library in our 1902 house that has the wall-to-wall red-oak bookshelves that a friend and I had built the year before. I thought of what Cheyenne had said as I glanced over some of the greatest of the world’s novels lined up one by one on the shelves, then back at the one I held in my hand.

“Let’s finish these last few pages of Harper Lee, and I’ll tell you about that,” I said. We always read aloud, taking turns, something which helped us make the stories come to life more, kind of as we were doing in telling this story. I invited Cheyenne to read the final two pages of Lee’s classic, but he deferred quickly,

“No, Popman,” he said, then said something that I’ll always remember, “you read the end. You’ve earned it.”

Thinking back to that, I wonder if he will not offer the same respect when he and I, the Lord’s being willing, read aloud this novel of 1973.

I picked up the reading and found my voice getting a little shaky (something I hope Cheyenne didn’t notice) as I read the final conversation between Scout and Attitcus before coming to Lee’s simple ending, “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

I couldn’t help but think that if I had to measure my words at the end of Lee’s novel, how much so when Cheyenne and I read this one one day. I didn’t dwell there long, because I was ready to leave Maycomb County and take my grandson back with me to 1973:

“You’re right about the similarity,” I said, after a moment, “I guess Scout, Jem, and Dill’s summer had a lot of growin’ up in it, just as mine did. And there’s somethin’ else that’s really similar. I guess you’d call it the ‘culture.’ Stories set in that Southern culture have a special sense of reality. Maybe it’s the accents, or the old-fashioned values, but I think there's something else.

“Somethin’ in particular that defined the entire atmosphere of that summer,” I said, “were the songs. On the job site, Red had a big radio plugged in in the garage and would play songs all durin’ the day. At noon we would sit around on buckets and eat lunch and listen to Paul Harvey, then the music was back on at 12:01 p.m. and only halfway drowned out by the roar of the mixer and Red’s hollerin’ for ‘ever-body to get yer tails back to work.'

“But the songs were the backdrop for everything that summer, and the Southern music of the 60’s and early ‘70s was some of our greatest music.”

I skimmed over the books on the bookshelves as I spoke, the titles only a blur as my mind was going somewhere else: to all those songs and the memories that came with them. One song came to mind immediately – not just because of the song but also because of a particular event surrounding it.

“A number of songs just seemed to be written for that summer,” I continued, “and I’ll have to tell you about several of them as the time comes, because they just fit the plot. Unfortunately, the songs had their own tragic themes, just as our story has tragic themes to go along with the romance; but the good thing is that, in our story, the tragedy doesn’t overshadow the romance, for which I’m glad. The romance adds a sweetness the summer needed, as you know; and we’ll keep goin’ back to it all the way to the end.

“But I told you that Pee Wee and I rode together out on the job by ourselves sometimes whenever we would need to run by the lumber yard in LaGrange, usually to grab a few bags of mortar-mix. I remember the one day that we rode together – this would have been in early July – that on the way home one of the greatest of the songs of that era came on Pee Wee’s truck radio. It’s called, ‘The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down.’ You’ve never heard it, but it played on the radio all summer long.

“The chorus goes something like this,” I said, and tried singing it, “The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringin’, and the people were singin’, and they went, ‘Na, na … na, na, na … na, na … na, na, na.”

Cheyenne smiled as I burst into song right in the middle of the story.

“That song has a lot of history, and some controversy, too,” I explained. “I didn’t learn this until years later. I jus’ knew the song had a catchy tune and an ominous but rich tone to it. What I learned later was that it is a song about the endin’ of the Civil War sung by an all-boys group called ‘The Band.’ It came out about 1969, but in 1971 a singer named Joan Baez came out with a version, and hers is the one that rang through the Alabama air it seemed like once a day all summer.

“I can hear her voice right now ringin’ out over the brick job. Ever’ time I hear it, I see Red runnin’ around tryin’ to get ever’body to work and Doocy showin’ me how to do somethin’ that he thought anybody with any gumption a’tall should be able to do – everythin’ jus’ comes back, jus’ like when the other songs of that summer would come on, from ‘Delta Dawn’ by Helen Ready to ‘Corinna, Corinna,’ then those others I have to tell you about that seemed to drill themselves right into my soul.

“The irony with ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is that it is about a white Southern boy named Virgil and his devastation to the South’s final defeat in the war.”

I looked to see if Cheyenne caught the connection before stating the obvious.

“Of course, you know I had a war of my own goin’ on down in Dixie in ’73. But, when Pee Wee drove me home that day, and I saw my granddaddy Preacher Miller’s car parked on the curb on the side of our house, somethin’ told me that this could be one of those nights.”

As I said that, I couldn’t help but play the song in my head again,

“The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’, ‘Na, na… na, na, na… na, na… na, na, na.’”


Coach Steven Bowen, a long-time Red Oak teacher and coach, now enjoys his time as a writer and preacher of the gospel. And, after a ten-year hiatus, he’s also returned to work with students at Ferris High School as well.

In addition to his evangelistic travels, he works and writes for the Church of Christ of Red Oak at Uhl Road and Ovilla. Their worship times are 10 a.m. Sundays and 7:30 pm. Wednesdays. Email or call or text (972) 824-5197.

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