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To Dixie or not to Dixie?

By January 26, 20112 Comments
Lew and Ben Snowden, perhaps
the authors of “Dixie”

Sooner or later, I was bound to get to a topic of infinite complexity and fascination for me, the American South. Here, specifically as it pertains to the fiddle. Recently, I decided that I want to learn the fiddle, and not the violin, because I want to play old timey music. Bluegrass music. Folk music. Whatever you want to call it, what I don’t want to play is classical music on a violin. So I found myself a great fiddle teacher here in Madison, Indiana who has been trained by the likes of Roger Howell and is immersed in the fine fiddling tradition of North Carolina. Learning to play has been a joy and I’m only a month in.

This week, as we were flipping through my Teach Yourself the Fiddle book, we came to “Dixie,” and my teacher explained that though this is a lovely song, it is not one that she plays. She has friends who find it deeply offensive, and they have explained why it’s deeply offensive, and so she has elected not to play it. Though, she admitted, it is a beautiful song. And then we flipped on to “Oh, Susanna” and “Wildwood Flower” because this is a book about teaching yourself to fiddle after all.

I came home excited about adding new songs to my repertoire, and conquered “Oh, Susanna” and “Shortnin’ Bread,” both enjoyable songs. And then I turned the page to “Dixie.” What to do? To play or not to play?

Image from “Dixie” sheet music

Well, I’m an academic, so why not do some research? And though I hate the ideas of my students doing this, I immediately went to the Wikipedia entry on “Dixie,” the song. “Dixie,” not surprisingly, is a minstrel song, written by Daniel Decatur Emmett for the Bryant’s Minstrels. Emmett was actually from Ohio, and not Dixie. Dixie, before Emmett wrote this song, referred to a farm on Long Island where John Dixie sheltered many former slaves. The original song was written in exaggerated slave dialect and was supposed to be from the perspective of a former slave pining for his plantation. So like much of the minstrel tradition, it was white folks’ distorted image of how they believed (or wanted to believe) black folks saw the world (for a great documentary about this, check out Ethnic Notions). That’s pretty much the history of much of popular culture in the U.S.

The exact origins of the song are murky, and some scholars believe that Emmett might have collaborated or just stolen the song from two black men he knew, Lew and Ben Snowden, back in Ohio. During the Civil War, Dixie became the unofficial song of the secessionist South. During the Civil Rights movement, white folks in the South would sometime counter “We Shall Overcome” with “Dixie.” Perhaps the most horrific use of the song comes from Senator Jesse Helms. When Carol Moseley Braun was elected to Senate, the first African-American woman and the only African-American in the Senate at the time, Helms taunted her with the song in an elevator. This was after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia in 1993. Running into Moseley Braun in an elevator, Helms turned to Senator Orrin Hatch and said, “I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” And then he did. So, just as an aside, do you think this is normal hazing activity in the Senate? Do you think our elected officials regularly aspire to make their colleagues cry? Do any of us want to know the answer to these questions?

So here’s what I’m thinking. There are a lot of songs that are in the bluegrass, old timey repertoire that probably originated as minstrel songs. A lot of classic American songs got their start there, as for years did most American performers (mostly white and male, but some also a few black). If you’re interested in a modern take on minstrel shows, check out Spike Lee’s movie, Bamboozled, which probably goes on too long, but is still so much more brilliant than many other movies that get made. So it’s not the minstrel thing that makes “Dixie” objectionable, and “My Old Kentucky Home” is also nostalgic about slavery, and it’s still played every year at the Kentucky Derby, on national television (at which point every year, I have to admit as a Kentuckian, I cry). I think I could even forgive it’s use during the Civil War, when it was played after each state’s vote for succession in Charleston, South Carolina. It was, after all, one of Abe Lincoln’s favorite songs.

The final flag of the Confederate States

But like the flag that we think of as the “Confederate” flag (which is actually the battle flag of the Confederacy, and not the flag of the Confederacy as a, um, nation?), what’s really troubling about “Dixie” for me is its use during the Civil Rights movement. Arguments about Southern heritage are hard to sustain when the particular objects (flags, songs) you’re arguing about were used very intentionally only 50 or so years ago to uphold a system of American apartheid in the South. Or I guess you can make that argument if you want to claim Bull Connor, the Citizen’s Council and the Klan as part of that heritage, and if you do, then you’ve just become scary. And the Jesse Helms thing…I just don’t know what to say about that.

So what I’m thinking is that I’ll probably never play “Dixie” outside the walls of this house or some other private space (which is funny, because it presumes that I’ll ever play anything outside of this house or some other private space). And I’ll confess that I have been stumbling through the notes already, and that it is a beautiful song. And what I’m struck with is that in this way, it’s different from the Confederate flag. That symbol is in no way beautiful and I feel we lose nothing by throwing it rather unceremoniously on the scrap heap of history. Which does not mean forgetting the Civil War, but pick the right damn flag if you want to remember the Civil War, whatever it is you want to remember about it. But it isn’t the lyrics that make “Dixie” a lovely song, but the tune itself. So is it okay to play just the melody without singing the words, or do you risk calling up all those sad and tragic ghosts? “Political correctness” is a term, much like “racism” that has become so overused and abused as to have lost all real meaning in American society, but I do believe that if someone tells me that saying a word, or hanging a symbol makes them feel like I am ignoring their humanity, I personally have no problem with avoiding that word or that particular symbol. But the thought of banishing this song gives me pause in a way that changing a sports mascot from the Rebels to the Rebel Black Bears (really?) just doesn’t.

The new Rebel Black Bear… nice hat

It seems in a better world, “Dixie” could come to represent something else. We would hear the song and contemplate the tragedy of a country in which some people once believed that anyone would be jolly about their own enslavement. We would remember that the fight for full humanity for everyone that began with the Civil War continued with the Civil Rights movement is not a battle that’s yet been won. We, somehow, (and this is the biggest stretch) would wrap our minds around Jesse Helms and his obscene cruelty to Carol Moseley Braun. How do we make that world? Do we play “Dixie” or not?


  • Jenny O. says:

    What an incredible post! Thank you for all the information. I'd often wondered about the origin of the song and why it infuriated so many people. I grew up in Texas, and though it's technically a southern state, it's not really a state in “The South.” Our state is one that is more defined with the struggles of the Mexican-American border. As a child who grew up in Southern Texas (about 45 minutes from the border) blacks were in the minority. Though the census has its own numbers (I believe Hispanics get confused by questions about their race and tend to answer “other” instead of “White”) the city is about 92 percent Hispanic, 6 percent white, and the remainder are blacks. I despised the cultural vacuum that my hometown, and really, the Rio Grande Valley is and was., I would never play Dixie, or display the Confederate Flag. I know what it's like to be a minority and to feel the sting of racism all to often, so I try my best be as sensitive as possible to others' feelings.

    So, if you like the song, I suppose there's nothing wrong with playing it in your own home because you enjoy the melody, and not the words. But I wouldn't play it in front of others.

  • Robyn says:

    Jenny O., it is interesting to think about Texas, which has a very different racial mix than other parts of the country.

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