The song was written by Band member and guitarist Robbie Robertson. It was released on The Band’s 1969 album titled The Band. That was a concept album, with songs about American people, places, traditions, and history. They also released “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as a single. It was the B-Side to “Up on Cripple Creek.” The single went to #10 in Canada and #25 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The song is on Rolling Stone’s List of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It is also on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. On the track are Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson.
Joan Baez did a cover with some changes to the lyrics in 1971, and that version went to #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart, and #6 in the U.K.
The Band formed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. in 1964. They came together as they joined rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’s backing group The Hawks (circa 1958-1963). Hawkins was originally from Arkansas and then settled in Ontario. They broke with Hawkins and then toured and recorded with Bob Dylan. Helm said that because they were “the band” behind a number of artists, he decided to name them The Band. They went on to play folk rock, country rock, and roots rock (that is, music looking towards rock’s roots in blues, folk, and country music).