Thursday, May 26, 2011

There Goes Robert E. Lee

An Obscure Lyric Debate, Resolved

So I went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland recently.

There is much to quibble with about the Hall. The layout of the galleries is uninspired and doesn’t live up to the promise of I.M. Pei’s architecture. Favorite acts of mine (and I assume anyone who visits) are short-changed or ignored (Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty). And unless you’re a guitar buff, once you’ve seen the first few dozen guitars, they all begin to look alike.

But there is some incredibly cool stuff. John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper outfit, and his handwritten lyrics for “In My Life”. A letter from Pete Townsend circa 1975, talking about this new kid Eddie Van Halen (“He plays very fast, and what a grin. With a grin like that you don’t need taste”). And Mick Jagger’s tongue-in-cheek permission to Jann Wenner, allowing him to name his new magazine Rolling Stone, in return for favorable press coverage in the years to come.

Bottom line: if you’re in Cleveland, love rock & roll, and have appropriately low expectations, you’ll enjoy it.

But my purpose here is not to do a museum review. My purpose is to share with you the resolution of an incredibly arcane, but meaningful to me, lyric debate. A few years back, I wrote a blog post about how rarely and poorly rock & roll lyrics invoke history, and made a friendly swipe at The Band.

Specifically, I wrote:

Think of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by the Band. A great song (especially the live version) but historically inaccurate:

"Back with my wife in Tennessee,
When one day she called to me,
'Virgil, quick, come and see, there goes Robert E. Lee.'"

I thought, those silly Canadians, Robert E. Lee wasn’t in Tennessee during the Civil War.

Several readers wrote in to correct me, and I carried on a correspondence with one of them afterwards. Virgil isn’t claiming to see Robert E. Lee, they informed me, but the Robert E. Lee, a steamship that worked the Mississippi immediately after the war.

Internet research on the subject was inconclusive, with differing accounts. A close listen to the song is equally inconclusively, as Levon Helm appears to sing “there goes a Robert E. Lee”. That vowel between goes and Robert could be singer’s shorthand for the, or just a bridge sound.

Well, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, has the answer. Robbie Robertson’s handwritten lyrics are there, and it quite plainly says:

There goes Robert E. Lee

Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, beautifully evokes the closing days of the Civil War. And he deserves points for surely being the only rock and roller to mention Union cavalry General George Stoneman. But he wasn't talking about a boat.

His character, Virgil Caine, claimed to see Robert E. Lee, the General himself, in the state of Tennessee. And that is simply not possible.

* Hey, I did warn you this post was about an obscure dispute, didn’t I? I was with a colleague from work when I saw the lyrics, and excitedly explained the implications to him. He was smiling at me like I was a lunatic, and trying to convey to the other museum-goers he wasn't with me...


Uno Whoo said...


You know, I've had this same quandary for years---I always assumed that Robertson was saying "back with my wife in Tennessee" as in antebellum or post war. Lee quite probably travelled to/through TN multiple times after the war (and before, though he wouldn't have been noteworthy then). So Robertson was not necessarily erring my mind he meant it exactly as written, and was entirely accurate in doing so!

Keatang said...

To Uno Whoo:
Hmmm, I think you may be onto something there. In fact, I think you've persuaded me. Even the following lyric ("i don't mind chopping wood") suggests a postwar period. Thanks for the insight.