November 15, 2017

The Song

by Uncivil

Background show artwork for Uncivil

We dig deep into the anthem of the Confederacy, and learn that almost everything we thought we knew about it... was wrong.


CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: There are symbols of the Confederacy that still appear in popular culture, like the stars and bars flags, or the monuments to Confederate generals. But there are other remnants of the Confederacy that are still with us.

Today we’re going to talk about one them. And it’s one that some people might not even connect with the Confederacy.

We sent our producer Saidu Tejan Thomas to ask people about it…

SAID TEJAN-THOMAS: I’m a journalist, working for a history show and-

PERSON 1: Wonderful!

STT: And I was wondering if I could play you a song and just get your thought on like what you think about it.


STT: Okay, awesome.


JACK HITT: Officially, this song is called “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land,” and during the Civil War, it became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy.

This song is still heard in the South today, and so when you play it for certain folks who grew up down there you often get a reaction like this:

PERSON 5: Makes me feel good

STT: Yeah?

P5: Yeah! Goes back to the roots!

STT: What roots?
P5: Well, I'm from South Carolina so it's, I mean 'Down in Dixie,' it's a, I mean it's a upbeat song!

STT: Yeah.

P5: 'Bout the roots of everything, from everything. Not just one particular person, but everybody.

JH: But of course because of the song’s tie to the Confederacy, it also provokes another, very different kind of response.

PERSON 6: It's kind of sad. When I hear that I think about slavery, and the things my family went through when I was a little girl.

STT: What, what kind of things?

P6: Work, working for the, the white man. You know, being maids in their houses and farm workers, you know. Used to peel tobacco, as I, as I remember, as a child.

STT: But that's not a song you would play on your down time?

P6: Oh no! No. It reminds me of slavery and war.


JH: Hey, Chenj, do you remember when you first heard it?

CK: I mean, to me that song to me is kind of like, the anthem of white supremacy, you know. I mean I know that it was a popular song for the Confederacy. But, you know, my first introduction to it actually was when I was little and I used to watch, like, The Dukes of Hazzard.

JH: What?! (laughs)

CK: Yo, for like a brief period, I was like, really into The Dukes of Hazzard.


CK: The General Lee, you know, Daisy Duke and all that. You know, and it was like [sings car horn melody]. You know, I was like yeah, I was like, kind of running around singing that song. And probably, I'm sure my dad saw that and was like, very quickly, I was banned in the house. I couldn't, you know, there was no, like there was no Dukes of Hazzard. This is our secret, by the way. You can't tell anyone this.


JH: So you know growing up in Charleston, SC, to me, the song was just -- everywhere. It was in the ether. If you were walking down the street you might pass a, a wedding - you’d hear the song, or if someone scored a touchdown at a football game. Hell, you’d actually hear people whistling it.

CK: In real life people actually would whistle “Dixie”?

JH: Yeah, I mean that people did-- it’s a catchy tune. And, you know, the song goes through like different periods and I think when I was growing up - it was there was this sense that it had been kind of cleansed of its evil past. You know, almost neutered, right. I think it’s one of the reasons why you can hear it in The Dukes of Hazzard. It would not be played in any TV show today, right. But even with that effort, the history of the song is kind of inescapable. It always manages to somehow resurface no matter what you do. I mean it’s not for nothing, that this song was the musical score to the pro Klan epic, Birth of a Nation a century ago, and only a few months ago was the name of that white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, the Dixie Freedom Rally.


        [MUSIC IN]

JH: This song has a long history with America. It's a history I thought I knew. But so far in making this show we’ve found that every aspect of Civil War that we’ve looked at has had this other, hidden history.

We wondered if Dixie was the same.

And so I started digging into the song,

And of course, turns out the history of Dixie is a hot mess and everything I thought I knew to be true-- is wrong.

        [THEME IN]

CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.

JH: And I’m Jack Hitt

CK: And this... is Uncivil.

JH: Where we ransack America’s past...

CK: And discover that history is kind only to those who write it…


JH: So, all my life I have known three basic facts about Dixie -- it was a Confederate anthem, it was written by a Southerner, and it was written during the war.

Wrong, wrong, AND wrong.

It turns out it was a pop song written by a Yankee in Manhattan before the war. I learned all this from Christian McWhirter, a researcher at the Lincoln Presidential Library.

CHRISTIAN MCWHIRTER: So Dixie is a minstrel song. Daniel Decatur Emmett -- the guy who wrote it -- was one of the founders of minstrelsy.

JH: Minstrelsy of course being:

CM: White people painting themselves up in blackface, going up on stage, and doing songs built around a caricatured image of African-Americans. It's a fundamentally racist style of music. And Emmett, he was the one who came up with the idea of a minstrel troupe, that instead of having one guy in blackface on stage you'd have a whole bunch of guys. And they would all play different characters.

JH: In every minstrel show the last song was called the walkaround -- the big crowd pleasing foot stomper with all the musicians on stage. And “Dixie” was written as one of these.  

        [MUSIC IN]

And these songs were incredibly popular with minstrel audiences in all the places where these shows were big.

JH: Where were most of these minstrel shows performed?

CM: The big cities in the North: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, you know, Boston. They are a Northern phenomenon.

JH: That’s right. Dixie wasn’t born out of a southern racist tradition. It was born out of a northern racist tradition. 

CM: Most of those people in that white audience thought of minstrelsy not as a caricature, but as a genuine representation of what African-American music in the South was like.

JH: Reporting, journalism.

CM: Yes.

JH: So the song had a huge following in the north. But the question is, how did it become a Confederate anthem?

Well, first, it broke out of the minstrel shows and went national.

CM: It was this huge hit in 1859, 1860. Today, it would be the number one song.

        [MUSIC OUT]

CM: The way music worked back then was not the way it works now, because there was no recorded sound. And so if there was a hit song, like other performers would pick it up and start doing it, right? And so one of them was a guy named Jay Newcomb. And Jay Newcomb toured the South in 1860, and ends up in New Orleans, where he performs "Dixie."  And all of this happens right around the time that Lincoln gets elected and the Deep South, at least, starts to secede. And so, they're, you know, they’re literally ripping the Union's old anthems out of their songbooks, they're looking for a good replacement. "Well, here's this song "Dixie." And at least the first couple verses and chorus sure sound pro-Confederate to me, so let's start using it."  

JH: The lyrics to the song do tell a story but almost no one knows them; only the chorus gets sung: “In Dixieland, I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie.”

JH: And once Confederates started using it, it went from pop song to anthem.

But here’s what really launched it.

On February 18th, 1861, the Confederacy swore in their first president.

CM: It gets played at Jefferson Davis's inauguration in Montgomery, and that kind of gives it the unofficial, you know, seal of approval, and then it goes from there.

JH: So Anthem of the Confederate States of America was a northern song, written in Manhattan, by a Yankee.

That’s a lot to wrap your head around right there. But hold on, because none of that is right either.


JH: People always debate about who wrote songs, but in the case of Dixie there’s a really good reason to go down this rabbit hole.

First, you know that New Yorker who wrote it, Daniel Emmett, when he told his story of where the song came from here’s what he’d say:

“It was a cold and rainy afternoon in New York City when I suddenly heard the first line in my head:

‘I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.’ And the whole song sprang, all at once, onto paper.” And that was his story.

But in Emmett’s hometown in Ohio, there’s another story about where this song came from and it goes like this:

CM: So, Emmett is from Mount Vernon, Ohio. And there's a African-American musical family around the same time Emmett is growing up there, called the Snowdens. The story is that this family had this song that had Dixie in it, and that Emmett must have heard it growing up, he committed it to memory, and ya know, he’s gotta write a song one night in 1859, he goes ahead and writes down the song the Snowden’s taught him.

JH: And there’s good reason to believe this version is the true version.

The Snowdens were really well known. People came from all around to the Snowden farm to hear their concerts. They were basically the Jackson 5 of the mid-19th century, upper Ohio valley

But besides them being famous, there’s another reason Emmett might have heard of them. The Snowdens lived next door to Emmett’s grandparents. 


In Mount Vernon, the fact that Emmett stole this song has long been an open secret.

CM: There’s this oral tradition there that the Snowden family, uh, taught Dixie to Emmett. 

This is codified in the two graves. Emmett's grave which the United Daughters of Confederacy later put this big monument over it saying, you know, “The man who wrote Dixie.” And then something like a few miles away from that in town is this grave for the Snowden family and it says, “They taught Dixie to Emmett.”

JH: Taught, it says. The Snowdens may have written it, or other black musicians may have. In those days, especially among African-Americans, there wasn’t much concern with authorship. You wrote a song and taught it to people. And then they taught you a song.


The whole idea of claiming credit only starts to matter if you live to Manhattan where a song gets sold as sheet music, and can make you famous.


CK: Alright Jack, so I just learned that a black family might have written Dixie. You know, that’s a thing I mean. Usually when I learn that white folks have stolen black culture, I’m glad we’re finally getting our credit. And in this case, I’m not sure that I want credit for Dixie, right. And some of it is, I don’t know what to do with that. I’m not going to start playing Dixie. I don’t know, maybe I need to hear from somebody else. Like another person of color who knows more about the history. Actually, could we, would it be possible for us to find a black musician who maybe knows this history, and has a different response to it.

JH: After the break, we hear from that person, a black musicians who has played Dixie--Justin Robinson. 


CK: So before the break, we learned that “Dixie” definitely wasn’t written by a Confederate Southerner, and probably wasn’t even written by a white New Yorker. Most likely, it was written by a free Black family in Ohio.

But even knowing this, when I listen to the song now i imagine like slaveholders loving this song, it still feels like the soundtrack to white supremacy to me.  

And I can’t really imagine black folks wanting to sing this song, or listen to it.

So when I heard there was a black musician out there performing “Dixie,” I had questions.

CK: When it comes to the song "Dixie”, right, like I have a relationship to it where it for me it's like the sonic version of the Confederate Flag, right.


CK: There's an uncomfortability inherent with the song, and I'm just wondering if you have any of that?

JR: I don’t have any from a personal level. But like, what does it mean for a black person to be playing this song that was probably written by a black person, but in the middle period has been co-opted by white supremacist ideology? That's weird! Like, that's a weird sandwich. And I wanted people to sit in that, and I wanted to set it firmly on people's plates so they could regard it and have their own reactions to it.

CK: This is Justin Robinson. He’s one of the founding members of the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

And to understand what first attracted Justin to the song “Dixie,” you have to understand how he came to love this style of music in the first place. It started with the banjo.

JR: I’m from North Carolina. So the sounds of it the banjo are always around whether you want to hear them or not. Purely, it was a sonic love affair at the beginning, and then I learned more about the history later.

CK: But Justin knew the real roots of this music. 

        [MUSIC IN]

JR: The banjo comes from Western Africa, so Senegal, Gambia. My ancestors may or may not have played that instrument, I don't know. And it kind of doesn't matter. To be able to hold that instrument in my hands now, knowing that this Senegalese instrument, Gambian instrument, traveled all across the ocean and is sitting in my hands in North Carolina now, is kind of amazing.

CK:And it was this sense of excitement about these instruments and this music, that brought Justin to the Black Banjo Gathering, a place where he knew he could meet other black musicians who loved them too.

JR: People played, and people talked, and people met each other. I knew that there was going to be a black fiddle player named Joe Thompson there, and so I wanted to go meet him. 

CK: When Justin met Joe Thompson, Joe was in his 80s. And he’d been playing string music since he was a kid.

JUSTIN: He was sort of, one of very few anyway who played the music traditionally, who got it from his father, and his father got it from his father so passed down through an oral tradition. 

CK: Learning the music directly from Joe had a real impact on Justin. He'd always been a fan of this style of music, but playing it with Joe made him want more.

Justin started spending every Thursday night with Joe and a couple of other musicians who he met at the banjo gathering.

JR: And we were in the country, and we were in North Carolina. And we were in a hot-ass house in April, because he's old. He was old at the time, you know how old people keep their houses sometimes. It was the three of us. It was me, Dom, and Rhiannon, and sometimes Sue Leah. And his wife would be there, and it was an all black space and that is the context, in which it sort of, its genesis...


CK: It was these nights in that hot Carolina house, that eventually made the Chocolate Drops. They became a band dedicated to playing music in the black string tradition…

        [MUSIC IN - 2-3 SECONDS]

That’s “Peace Behind the Bridge,” from the Chocolate Drops album, Genuine Negro Jig.

        [MUSIC OUT]

Justin and the other Chocolate Drops wanted the audiences at their shows to feel the music they played as a black tradition.

And so when they thought about “Dixie” and how Daniel Emmett likely stole the song from a black band the Snowdens,it made sense to perform it.

JR: Having that additional information about the snowdens and about the story and all that, made it a richer internal conversation, and the other members of the bands would talk about -- we would all talk about -- its origins. 

It was, you know, a contentious piece of music to be playing certainly by black people. Yeah, 'cause probably nobody black has played it since the Snowdens, certainly not in any popular way. So yeah, we did it to be provocative.


JR: As a reclamation.

CK:  A way to tell a different story about the song.

JR: I thought it was part of a larger story that we were telling. The story of how things are misappropriated, and then resold and repackaged with their original contents sort of hollowed out.

CK: Justin says he would avoid the lyrics of Dixie altogether, so no one sung them. They just played the instrumental music, the way they imagined the Snowdens playing it.

CK: When y'all would play this song, was there a lot of setup?

JR: Nope, I almost never said anything.

CK: Mm.

JR: I let people come to their own conclusions.

CK: So I’ve been to a couple of Chocolate Drops concerts. And here’s what you have to know:

A lot of times almost everybody in the audience--is white. And so I had to ask --

CK: I guess what I wanna ask you is--lemme ask it like this: Periodically, for whatever reasons, white folk will invite you into a coon space. And when they do that, it's never, ‘I'm going to invite you into a coon space.’ Do you know what I mean?

JR: You're going to have to break that down. I've never heard that term used in that particular way. What's that mean?

CK: Okay. Well, you know [sigh]. Like to me, what I'm talking about is folks will invite you into a project that's about performing something for their pleasure. Maybe even-

JR: Oh sure. Yeah, okay.

CK: They invite you to dehumanize yourself for profit, for their pleasure, to deepen their sense of identity. So I guess the question I'm asking you about this is: How do- I'm interested in what insights you have about how to navigate that.

JR: You're sort of hitting on the head what it means to be black in America or indigenous in America or sort of any other group who's having to navigate these things about how to deal with sort of whiteness and keep your own humanity at the same time which can be complicated. Our ancestors certainly figured out how to do it, and I don't think I'm any less smart than they are. And so we're talking about these coon spaces, as you call them now. As the Chocolate Drops we have played in many such a space. Spaces that I'd rather forget. It was a- it got weird, and it continued to get weirder. 

CK: Is there a particular moment where you were like - that you remember where you were like, “This is really weird."

JR: Yeah. I can tell you the time. It became a little too much.


We were in South Carolina. Now, my parents are both from South Carolina and, as most black people, have their roots in South Carolina or Virginia.

JUSTIN: We got to the festival grounds. It was a bluegrass festival in Charleston. We got into the property, I was asleep in the van, and I sat up straight. Because I didn't know, at this point, I didn't know where the gigs were -- I just got in the van and shut up. And I was like, "Where are we?" My spirit felt wrong. And, once we pulled up, I was like, "Oh!"

CK: It was a place Justin had known about since he was a kid, Boone Hall.

JR: Boone Hall is one of the first plantations that are in, that is in Charleston. A big, fancy place -- like Gone With the Wind, Tara kind of plantation.

CKI: Mmm.

CK: And then they got on stage.

JR: And there was nothing but white people in there.

JR: Um, and so, that was like, "we might be doing something wrong." [laughs] That's what I felt, in that moment. I was like, "This - the irony is not lost on me that we are at a plantation playing fiddle and banjo for an all-white audience in Charleston, South Carolina."

JR: And I was like, this is so palatable; they love it because it makes them feel comfortable.

I walked through the crowd to go and get something to eat from one of the concession stands, and I don't know how many times I heard the n-word, like as I walked through the crowd.

JR:  It was soul-crushing.


JUSTIN: This feels like, not narrative disruption. This feels like replication.


CK: This experience at Boone Hall, was one of many. And it all started to affect Justin.

JR: And I became resentful of the audiences.

CK: Mmm.

JR: And so that, then that started to mess with my own feeling toward the music which I really couldn't handle. I like the music. I just do, as a me human being Justin Robinson. I like how the music sounds. So it was the, the, the publicness of that was messing with that love. I can’t in good conscience play old time music in public. And I haven't for quite a while. I stopped playing the music pretty much altogether.

CK: So it’s heavy listening to what happened to Justin. And just like the effect it had on his relationship to this music that he loved so much. Because Justin created a possibility for me to have a relationship to "Dixie," and not just Dixie but to that kind of music. But then when you see what happened, right, it almost like confirmed a lot of the fears that I had. You know, but that’s actually not my takeaway totally, like, I mean on the one hand, yeah, definitely my recommendation is if you’re black, don’t play "Dixie" on stage in front of white people. But I feel a little bit sad. You know, Justin stopped playing the fiddle music altogether, like old time music all together, and I have a sense of what was lost from that, you know.

Here’s the thing I think about with Dixie, here’s what makes Dixie complicated. Like on one level one, it’s real easy just to be like forget Dixie it's racist and everything. But I think about the Snowdens, and I think about that town, Mount Vernon. I mean somebody took time to write in that gravestone, that "Snowden taught Dixie to Emmett." And to me that’s representative of this black community that wants us to remember, and I know there's people in that community that do remember. And I just feel like if I say, you know, "forget 'Dixie,'" am I betraying them in a way? And that’s what makes this like difficult for me. And I don’t you know, I’m not sure what the answer is? I know I think for me, it’s -- I just have to figure out a way to sit with that discomfort.

CK: But for Justin he found his own solution.

JR: I just moved out to the country, which I love. It's wonderful. Ever since I've been  out there, the banjo has just been speaking to me in this really particular way. Saying "play me, play me, play me, play me..."

CK: He said sometimes he’ll go out -- he talked about one time he went out, and you know he walked out and he has this fire pit that's like about a hundred yards from his house.

JR: In that instance, it was kind of a chilly-ish night. I walked myself down there with my small jacket on.

CK: He had, you know, the banjo kinda slung, you know, over his shoulder or whatever.

JR: So I made myself a little, little baby fire. And-

CK: And he just would play.  


JR: I can conjure up my own memories of playing with Joe. That's who I learned those songs from. That's sort of my most, my deepest connection to this music is through him. It connects me to, it connects me back across the ocean to African ancestors. And I can appreciate it, its sound, it sounds good.


JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.  We had more help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney, Alex Blumberg and Pat Walters.

CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, and Emma Munger. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.  

We'd like to thank everyone in the low country for a fantastic week of recording.

Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Rocko Walker, Haley Shaw, and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.

JH: Our show was fact checked by Julie Beer. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.

Special thanks to Randy Snowden, those were great talks. For more on the Snowden family and the song "Dixie," check out the book Way Up North in Dixie by Howard and Judith Sacks.

CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. And don’t forget to join our Facebook group: Uncivil Podcast

JH: I’m Jack Hitt.

CK: And I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.