Aaron J. Brown is an author and radio producer who teaches at Hibbing Community College. Years of writing about Iron Range news, history, culture and politics have culminated in his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He lives on the western Mesabi Iron Range in Itasca County with his family.

The night they drove ol' Butler down

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: April 29, 2014 - 10:14 PM

Trampled by Turtles, the alt-bluegrass band from Duluth, has effectively soundtracked early 21st Century life in northern Minnesota. Boasting alternative sounds with traditional instruments, and lyrics that speak of self-destruction and rebirth, the Turtles not only represent the cream of a burgeoning Minnesota music scene, their music fills in the mysteries of life in this land of cold wonder.

TBT is poised to roll out a new album "Wild Animals" on July 15, but before then I have to point out this 2012 recording of Trampled by Turtles singing "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," a classic by The Band penned by Robbie Robertson.

This was a found treasure for me, as "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" is one of my favorite songs. The best version was the original sung by The Band's Levon Helm, but many people also know the Joan Baez version. I'll go for The Band on this every time, though, because they sang the song pure.

The folks who like Baez's version best probably like the chorus line in which the Confederacy is defeated. When she recorded the song in 1971 that must have been a refreshing tone for her anti-war, predominantly liberal fan base. And that's fine; just not the true power of this song.

This is not just a song about the Union beating the Confederacy, or a social justice song (though it is that in part). It is a song about being proud, brave, and yet defeated. It is a song about everything you know being over. It is a song about generational sadness.

Which brings me to why I love this song so much. Yes, even me: a northern Minnesota guy whose ancestors served proudly in the Union army, thank you very much, and who is known, time to time, for vestigial rants about the treason of the Confederates.

The reason I love this song is because you can imagine the word "Dixie" replaced by the word "Butler," referring to the first major Iron Range taconite plant to shut down in the 1980s. If you do this, the emotion of my childhood on the Iron Range is all right there. Because it wasn't just Butler. It was also Cummins Diesel, where my dad worked. The Range would bleed 40 percent of its population and half the school enrollment in the years leading up to now. Yankees didn't kill our brothers; but bottles and heart disease would work just the same.

So I really like this Trampled by Turtles version of "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down." Especially when it's sung by a band on the upswing, from a city like Duluth, which is fighting its way back, too.

It's almost enough to make a guy believe that the Range will rise again.

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