Author’s Note: This is a revised and expanded version of a story that first appeared on this site in July, 2009, with new reflections inspired by Bob Dylan’s interview with Mikal Gilmore.
What would Joan Baez say? A clip from Bob Dylan’s film, Masked and Anonymous, shows Dylan and his band singing a reverent but spirited version of “Dixie” on a website that extols the virtues of the Confederate Army battle flag.
Say what you will about Dylan’s voice but his rendition of “Dixie” enhances one’s appreciation of the song’s qualities when not played and sung in a torrid and haughty manner. Dylan’s choice of the song for the film was hardly surprising. In recent years he has noted various aspects of America’s history through his various forums, albums, radio shows and in his memoir, Chronicles. From the time of his earliest recordings, Dylan was a witness to history. With his vast unparalleled career as a songwriter and performer, Dylan has become part of American history himself. So, the history making artist is the professor with the electric guitar.
Professor Dylan, like the best teachers, presents his subject, that place where old times are not forgotten, helping many students relate in various ways. Some will remember when the playing of “Dixie” first became a controversial matter in the southern states. The furor commenced in the late sixties and early seventies when Atlanta area schools were integrating. For the most part, in my Clayton County high school, integration went smoothly enough. There were some altercations, but things usually cooled off quickly. After all, a lot of the white kids liked the black kids and vice versa. Making these new friends was fun and, in the grand social experiment we were participants in, most interesting.
But old traditions become matters of contention in the grand social experiment when people are bogged down by so much unpleasant history. Hence the playing of “Dixie,” to many, just a rollicking tune to rouse passions for the football team at games and pep rallies. But to others it was a symbol of when one race absolutely dominated the other race. That reminiscence was painful to blacks as it gave some whites a chance to whoop it up. Before the term was popularized, playing the tune was a vehicle for getting in your face. The more the kids whooped it up during the playing of “Dixie,” the more tense and irritated others felt. This, remember, was a time when Lester Maddox was Lieutenant Governor of Georgia and George Wallace the Governor of Alabama, the state on our western border. And we know neither of those politicians rose to power due to any other issue besides race. So if the school administration allows the band to keep playing “Dixie,” they’re placating the Pickrickers and the Wallacites. Thus, the administration does what they seem to do best. They make a new rule.
The edict went forth. The cautious school administration would no longer allow the playing of “Dixie” at school events. So while the band could actually kick out the jams to a fast and brassy version of “Son of a Preacher Man,” they would not be able to play the old and beloved Southern anthem.
The reporters at the school newspaper, interpreting some of the lessons about the Constitution taught in American History classes, determined this was a violation of First Amendment rights. They had the temerity to publish their opinions in the school newspaper. The school principal showed what he thought of the First Amendment by shutting the school newspaper down.
The matter was resolved somehow by some compromise, perhaps no more helpful than the one in 1850.
During the 1850’s an attorney from Illinois, one who had served his state in the United States House of Representatives, slowly became more prominent in American politics. Elected President of the United States in 1860, he took the lead, at a cautionary pace, to begin the end of legal domination of one race over the other. A brutally destructive war would be engaged between people of the same country. Brother against brother. Those who favored true freedom prevailed but maintaining true victory has been a struggle. Many of us, even considering who’s now holding forth at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, still acknowledge the spirit behind such a victory hasn’t been properly shared.
Successful against many odds, Abraham Lincoln won a second term as President of the United States in 1864. He was politically successful and he was victorious in the great fight for his nation. He also had a song in mind at a time of celebration. Lincoln had learned of Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his Confederate Army to Union forces and knew it was time to enjoy a hard fought victory. He asked a band at the gathering that night to play “Dixie,” which he described as “one of the best tunes I’ve ever heard.” It had been the Confederate anthem, but in a light-hearted mood, Lincoln, backed by the attorney general, surmised the song was a “lawful prize” of The United States.
Perhaps all could have been happy more than one hundred years later if bands had played “Dixie” while wearing stove-piped hats. That sort of irony both Lincoln and Dylan could appreciate.
On and on it has gone and it has continued to play out. “Dixie” seems to never run out of verses.
The Band Is Playing “Dixie,” A Man Got His Hand Outstretched . . . Several years ago a friend vented over how they’re taking everything away from us. Black students in their college community had raised questions over the celebration of famous slaveholders (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson) in festival parades. Instead, the parades could honor men and women who rose up from slavery, as well as heroic Native Americans. Such ideas didn’t go over well. The whites who got their history from the film version of Gone With The Wind felt cheated. It made little difference whether the feelings of others, especially those who’ve really been cheated in our country’s history, should be considered. No, the cries for justice or simply the request we talk about these things was ruining their fun, as if broccoli was being served at the barbecue. They’d rather not talk about such things because it will go against Mama and Daddy. To their way of thinking, discussing these matters seems an attack on their way of life, their community and their faith. They remember days in church, singing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” surely thinking the songwriter must’ve put an asterisk in there somewhere.
The kids in the school who wanted to hear “Dixie” during the pep rallies were also taken by the performances of their black classmates at the talent show. Mike was great on that Tyrone Davis song, “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time;” he heard the compliments from kids who rarely spoke to him for days. So in an a suburban town in the early 70s, there was an opening created for the black kids and white kids to chat and reflect on common interests. The years ahead were ones in which they’d have to make decisions affecting society, either globally or locally. Amends could be made with commonalities outweighing differences. But choosing to be held back by history seems easier than learning from it.
In his Rolling Stone interview (September 27, 2012 issue), Bob Dylan addresses the chasm over race in America, telling Mikal Gilmore, “It’s a distraction.”
People are at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery – that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. …
It’s doubtful that America’s ever going to get rid of that stigmatization. It’s a country founded on the backs of slaves. You know what I mean? Because it goes way back. It’s the root cause. If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today. Whoever invented the idea “lost cause…” There’s nothing heroic about any lost cause. No such thing, though there are people who still believe it.
How Does It Feel? . . . Some of those people Dylan refers to are like those who think “they are taking everything away from us;” those who cannot understand why there is resentment over honoring those who held slaves. No doubt there are plenty of reasons otherwise to hold George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in high esteem, but there should at least be a willingness to talk with those who feel resentment and try to understand it. They conveniently disregard the hate that has too often driven the nation’s leadership – not just decades – but more than a century after slavery was ended.
In his book, Black Georgia in the Progressive Era 1900-1920, John Dittmer wrote of how, in 1913, just after President Wilson’s inauguration, the First Lady made it clear blacks should be kept in their place. Touring the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the first Mrs. Wilson (born in Georgia) took offense when she saw black and white women dining together in the lunchroom. Despite President Wilson’s campaign promise to give blacks fair treatment, all it took was the First Lady’s shock for the Wilson Administration to draw up new rules which quickly segregated working, eating and toilet facilities in the Treasury, Post Office and Navy departments. Still, the Wilson Administration sought the support of its foreign policy from black Americans, especially when the nation entered World War One. 200,000 black soldiers served on America’s behalf, but fighting in “the war to end all wars” brought little peace for black Americans when the victorious troops returned home. Segregation, lynching and Jim Crow laws remained in effect.
After World War Two, in which blacks again fought bravely for a nation not yet ready to grant them equal rights, the Truman Administration ordered desegregation of the armed forces. Harry Truman’s brave edict didn’t please whites who had all numbers of ways of feeling threatened by any progress made by blacks. President Truman also proposed a Fair Employment Practices Commision and other civil rights advances, such as ending state poll taxes and drafting federal anti-lynching laws. Such proposals moved South Carolina Strom Thurmond to break away from the Democratic Party of Harry Truman and run for President in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat.” Thurmond’s worldview was captured in one of his campaign speeches.
I wanna tell you ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.
Thurmond won only four states as Truman prevailed in the presidential campaign but the South Carolina governor did go on to the U.S. Senate, winning election as a write-in candidate in 1954. Except for a six-month period in ’56, Thurmond remained in the Senate until January 3, 2003, less than six months before he died at the age of 100. At a party celebrating Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott toasted the birthday boy, saying, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have all these problems over the years, either.” “These problems” could easily be interpreted as what’s happened since blacks have been allowed to enter public places at will. Lott sounded as if he wished to reverse history’s course while praising the Thurmond who resisted change. That wasn’t the persona Thurmond wished to convey in his ninth and tenth decades of life. After all, he was a confident of James Brown. But despite his friendship with Soul Brother Number One, Thurmond will always be remembered as an ardent segragationist who worked mightily against civil rights bills, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which he filibustered against for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single senator.
Trent Lott’s impromptu speech was delivered less than ten years ago, more than a generation after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of major civil rights legislation King had championed. America had endeavored, even as Thurmond, Maddox and Wallace were among its most visible politicians, to live up to its ideas, particularly the ideas of its founders, among them, quizzically enough, slaveholders. But despite the progress made, the better angels of our nature, like those Abraham Lincoln refered to, can easily find agreement with Bob Dylan’s perspective. The vestiges of slavery have dragged the nation down. If more of us acknowledge that, and sympathize with the feelings of slavery’s descendants, America can reflect its promise boldly.
Bob Dylan sings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW4IEShhkSo