It is not stealing or looting to take things that inspire you in one culture and adapt and change them to further your own expression. It’s a right.
It’s the essence of art.
And it’s a right to be extended both ways.
In late August, 1968, a successful, young Canadian songwriter named Robbie Robertson would sit down to engage in one of the most preposterous acts of cultural appropriation in music history.
His subject matter was a particularly painful moment in American history, told from the perspective of a group that had experienced merciless violence at the hands of the U.S federal government, expressed in the form of a rock and roll song.
At the time Robertson knew so little about the group he was singing about—it wasn’t his culture, after all—that he would have to visit his local library to read up on them before he started writing.
Yet somehow, his song worked.
Like so many acts of cultural appropriation from the past a lack of familiarity or a genuine connection to the traditions involved was hardly an obstacle to commercial or critical success.
The song was an enormous hit that has spanned the decades, even covers of it would go on to chart as high as #3 on the Billboard charts.
And the only thing more stunning than its success is that nobody seems to mind or be bothered by the fact that the songwriter was writing about a cause that wasn’t his own, that he was quite literally taking up someone else’s banner.
While this might seem like a strange way to describe and contextualize the generally beloved song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, using today’s increasingly militant standards of cultural appropriation, it’s absolutely true.
Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage.
What does that look like in practice?
Depending on who you talk to, it’s Katy Perry wearing a kimono in her performance at the American Music Awards.
It’s Elvis popularizing black music and becoming obscenely rich in the process.
According to one angry student in San Francisco, it can be growing your hair into dreadlocks.
Just this year, a massive controversy in the art world reared up over whether a white painter could show a painting about the death of Emmett Till.
The question then is: Who does Robbie Robertson think he is, trying to speak about the plight of the poor tenant farmers of Dixie?
Consider: He’s not American. He’s not from the South.
His song is not about a “winner” of history either.
He is taking up the voice of the poor white Southerner, used as cannon fodder in a war most of them never wanted; he’s singing about a part of the country decimated by Sherman’s troops, a world that Drew Gilpin Faust would call the “Republic of Suffering.”
Again, to argue that we should be upset about the appropriation of Southern culture—a slave owning culture—might seem absurd, but we’ve already begun to take the outrage over appropriation so far that posing this question now seems almost overdue.
Why shouldn’t American Southerners have just as good a case as any to protest “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?”
Students at Oberlin have boycotted the dorm cafeteria over its decision to serve sushi (appropriated from Japan), students at the University of Ottawa can get a yoga class cancelled (appropriated from India) and a burrito cart in Portland was shut down because they got recipe ideas and cooking tips on a trip to Mexico.
Just a few months ago in Canada, where Roberston is from, an editor dared to suggest that art inspired by or capturing a culture other than one’s own deserved a special prize, and his peers basically tried to drive him from his profession.
A fellow editor who tweeted approvingly of his idea actually was!
So why aren’t American southerners protesting to have “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” banned from the radio?
To demand that the Grammy’s revoke The Band’s lifetime achievement award?
Because Robertson’s humanizing, somehow apolitical portrait of loss and pain and confusion at the collapse of the Confederacy in the final days of the Civil War is an astounding artistic achievement.
So too is the final live performance that was perfectly captured and frozen in time by Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.
To think that today’s increasingly strict and aggressive standards of cultural appropriation—if applied fairly—would prevent the song from being written?
That by these rules of heritage the only thing Robertson should be allowed to write about is the perspective of an indigenous Canadian? I shudder at the thought.
Thankfully, none of this has happened.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is currently safe and widely considered to be one of the greatest songs in the history of American music.
As it should be.
The problem with policing political correctness issues like cultural appropriation is not that it protects people.
We should all seek to be polite, respectful and understanding, particularly of groups that are different than us and that have been treated unfairly in the past.
The instincts behind it are good.
The problem with political correctness is that by mandating this protection—by using social pressure and even shaming to enforce codes about what is OK and not OK—it becomes fundamentally oppressive.
My editor has said to me before, “It’s not what a book is”—who made it, what its intentions are—“it’s what a book does.”
And “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” does something.
It captures something so completely, creates such a vivid illusion that it comes to many people as a surprise who made it. It does what Robertson set out to do.
If “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” had failed to do that, if it has been trite or unfeeling, we wouldn’t need to line up to accuse them of cultural appropriation, by the way.
We already have plenty of language to describe bad or mediocre art.
For that reason, it is interesting to listen to Joan Baez’s chart topping cover of the song which, as it happens, misses completely the sorrow and the pain of the song, singing it like it’s some fun church choir romp (it also gets the lyrics wrong).
And has, as a result, mostly faded from memory while the original song remains popular.
My guess is that we give Robertson and The Band a pass because deep down we know that cultural appropriation—when done right, when done well—is actually called art.
And when we are not too busy looking for outrage points on the internet to look at the art itself, we know that it is actually something quite powerful and important.
As Ralph Gleason would write in Rolling Stone about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1969, it’s almost unreal how good the song is—it is better at capturing the personal cost of the fall of that flawed, broken cause than any history book or primary source.
“Nothing I have read,” he said, “brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does….It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today.”
It is not stealing or looting to take things that inspire you in one culture and adapt and change them to further your own expression. It’s a right. It’s the essence of art. And it’s a right to be extended both ways.