And not just any old footnote either:
Back in 2017, I wrote a post delving into the connections between the country churchyard where my parents are buried and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which you can read (and listen to) here.
Shortly after that, a kerfluffle broke out (yet again…o’er the years there have been many) on Greil Marcus’ website mailbag section, regarding whether the “Robert E. Lee” in the song was a reference to the General or a steamboat. People took it very seriously. Marcus used his in with the song’s composer, Robbie Robertson, to email him and ask direct. Robbie said “There’s no boat in the song.”
Next step in the process involved me writing into Marcus’s mailbag with my explanation for the possible source of the confusion (basically, the practical Yankee mind which knows Robert E. Lee was never in that part of the country vs. the romantic Southern mind which knows he is with us always and everywhere) to which Greil offered a brief but gracious response.
Now cut to this morning,very early in the A.M., with me sitting on the throne, fending off another coughing fit while I wait for my Covid-19 test results, reading the latest edition of Marcus’ most famous book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
It was first published in 1975, with six main chapters, one of which deals with the Band. I first read it in the spring of 1982, when I used the free week I had at the FSU music library before I officially became an alumni and would lose my lending privileges to check it out. I was suitably impressed, sorry I couldn’t keep it, loaned it to my mother so she could read the famous essay on Elvis which closes the book. She was less impressed. Her wise words were “Well, at least he took him seriously,” as if that was the most you could expect from an intellectual. I’ve got whole categories on this blog dedicated to the idea she was right but that’s another story for another time.
For now, I have to get back to this morning, when I was sitting in my bathroom, reading the 7th edition of the book and the third I own. For those who wonder why I would buy more than one edition of the book, it’s because with every new edition, Marcus updates a “Notes and Discography” section that, by now, is longer than the original book itself and is generally at least as interesting as the original text. Given endless resources, I’d own every edition, but as it is I’m satisfied to check in every decade or two.
This latest, however, is likely to be definitive because it’s from The Folio Society, a London house which specializes in bringing out collectible editions of classic works in all fields. I collect Folio when I can. I collect Mystery Train when I can. It made sense to celebrate my getting out of bankruptcy this Spring by ordering a copy which promises (and delivers) a bunch of stunning photos and greatly expanded Notes in addition to Folio’s usual slipcase and superior print craftsmanship.
Instead of reading the book straight through, I’ve been reading a chapter and then the notes associated with that chapter. So this morning I had finished reading the third chapter, which is the one on the Band, and was now reading the notes.
And right there on page 285, Folio Society Edition, 2020 I let my weary eyes wander down to a footnote* that takes up nearly half the page….and what do I see:
*”A week or so ago,” the musician Oliver Hall wrote in 2006, “[we] passed through Greenville, North Carolina, and a wonderful space of appearances called Spazzatorium gallery. Afterwards, we sat around with some locals and we sang loud, drunken harmony together: Woody Guthrie, Carter Family, some Civil War ballads I didn’t know (one in which “Jeff Davis rides a dappled grey mare, Abe Lincoln rides a mule”). When we were well in our cups, I began to sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but after the first chorus, the Southerners begged me to stop. They had tears in their eyes and said the song was too painful for them to sing.” When in 2017 an online controversy broke out over whether or not, in certain live performances, Levon (Helm) himself sang not “There goes Robert E. Lee,” in other words the person, but “there goes the Robert E. Lee,” which, as denoting a Mississippi steamship, would properly be, “the Robert E. Lee,” Robbie confirmed “There is no boat in the song.” John Ross added: “For the record, every white citizen in the South who had a living memory of the Civil War believed they had caught a glimpse of Robert E. Lee, just as every white citizen thereafter has believed they’re related to him. Stoneman’s Cavalry left from my father’s back yard and ended up in my mother’s so I know a little about this. Sorry I can’t pass on what all Virgil told my uncle. But I promise you he’d be amused by this.”
Okay, so I was a little disappointed I didn’t make the Index, like my Medium partner Lew Shiner (Marcus referenced one of his short stories in the Robert Johnson Notes). And I’ll still hope for the day when some future edition reads “novelist John Ross added:”
But, as it stands, I’ve got a worthy mention in the definitive edition of the most famous and important book of rock criticism written in the twentieth century.
Coughing fits and constipation be damned.
Life ain’t all bad!