Missouri State Band Reignites Debate Over "Dixie"

Dec 20, 2011 at 7:53 am
"Dixie" came out of blackface minstrel shows in the mid-19th Century. - Image via
"Dixie" came out of blackface minstrel shows in the mid-19th Century.
The song "Dixie" was born from the blackface minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. The lyrics take the perspective, and exaggerated dialect, of a free slave who aches to return to his days of plantation bondage.

The first verse opens: "I wish I was in the land of cotton/ Old times they are not forgotten/ Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land." And the chorus continues: "I wish I was in Dixie. Hooray! Hooray!/ In Dixie Land I took my stand to live and die in Dixie/ Away, away, away down south to Dixie/ Away, away, away down south to Dixie."

During the Civil War, the song became the Confederacy's anthem. Today, of course, "Dixie" induces polarized sentiments. Some call it an offensive reminder of one of America's great injustices. Some call it an essential artifact of the South's culture, of America's culture.

On November 18th, Missouri State University stepped firmly into the smoldering controversy, when its "Pride Band" played the song at a dedication of Park Central Square in Springfield, the site where three black men were lynched in 1906. On Saturday, the school's interim president Clif Smart issued an apology, telling the Springfield News-Leader that "Dixie" was "an unfortunate selection" that "will not be played again in a public venue."

The band's performance of the song triggered complaints from both community members and the NAACP. Defenders of "Dixie," argue that the song represents more than lingering nostalgia for plantation-era good times and is the region's version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The song was widely popular all across America in the second half of the 1800s. It was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite tunes -- so much so that he had a band play it on the day he announced Robert E. Lee's surrender, hoping the song would serve as a bridge toward post-war reconciliation.

As recently as 2009, "Dixie" remained Ole Miss's unofficial fight song, trumpeted proudly whenever the Rebels got a crucial first down or needed a big defensive stop. At a judicial conference in Virginia in 1999, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist led a "Dixie" sing-along.

"I've been to a number of the sing-alongs. I think he's always sung 'Dixie,'" a (white) lawyer named George C. Freeman Jr. told the Washington Post at the time. "I think all this stuff about reliving history is overblown. . . . I really think that the past is the past."

A couple of weeks after the Park Central Square incident, a News-Leader reader named Justin Ormsby, who described himself as "a music educator and MSU Pride Band alumni," spoke out against the song's critics in a letter to the editor. Citing Lincoln's embrace of the song, he wrote that "In this way 'Dixie' represents a reclaiming of the morality of equality from the segregated South."

In the eyes of many Southerners, contempt for "Dixie" is viewed as one more way outsiders are attempting to water down their culture. In his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South, author Clint Johnson calls attention to a "media-led" campaign to denigrate the former states of the Confederacy.

"There is an open not-at-all-secret conspiracy to erase 'Dixie' and all vestiges of the Old South from public memory," writes Johnson. "The goal is to take away the South's distinctiveness, to make it a plain, homogenized version of everywhere else in the nation with no interesting accents, no rebellious history, no cultural heritage.... If the leaders and followers of this movement succeed, the South will one day be no more a distinctive region than the amorphously named Midwest."

South Carolina State Senator Glenn McConnell called the push to eliminate the song "a form of cultural genocide."

The problem with this line of reasoning, though, is that it fails to account for all those times in recent history that "Dixie" has stood as a proxy for hate. For instance, the song took on even more loaded connotations during the civil rights movement.

"[Blacks] would sing a song like 'We Shall Overcome' or 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' But then opponents of integration and black rights would sing 'Dixie' as a kind of counter-song asserting white privilege and white supremacy," University of Mississippi historian Charles Reagan Wilson told NPR in 2002.

In 1993, U.S. Senator and noted bigot Jesse Helms whistled "Dixie" when he was in an elevator with Carol Mosely Braun, the first black woman in the Senate, with whom he had dueled over the use of the Confederate flag. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Helms told his colleague, Senator Orrin Hatch, "I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries."

Spurred by the civil rights movement, students and band members at schools across the South protested the use of the song. Performers in the United States Army band protested it in 1971. Ole Miss administrators, whose mascot up to 2003 was a Confederate army soldier named Colonel Rebel (it is now a bear), banned "Dixie" in 2009.

So with its own "Dixie" ban, Missouri State signs its name onto a long list.