The Dream of the South
by Mark Royden Winchell
In the summer of 1933, the Southern Agrarian poet Allen Tate and his friend the Marxist literary critic Malcolm Cowley visited various Civil War landmarks in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky. After being photographed shaking hands in front of the Confederate monument in a cemetery near Fort Donelson, the two drove home singing such plantation melodies as “Old Black Joe,” “Swanee River,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” At the end of the trip, Cowley noted, somewhat sheepishly, “You know those songs we’ve been singing? They were all written by a Pittsburgh boy.” Whenever I attend a meeting of unreconstructed Southerners who sing “Dixie,” I always turn to the person next to me and point out that the song we’ve just sung was written by a boy from Mount Vernon, Ohio.
What are we to make of the fact that the image of the Old South in American culture has been shaped to such a great extent by two Northern songwriters who never lived and rarely even visited below the Mason-Dixon Line? If Stephen Collins Foster and Daniel Decatur Emmett were dealing more in myth than in observed reality, the myth of the South has obviously had an appeal that transcends regional boundaries. (Not too many years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine two songs more widely known and instantly recognizable than Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” and Emmett’s “Dixie.”) And, as all but simplistic literalists know, myth itself is not a lie but a truth greater than anything we might learn through journalism or sociology. In so many respects, the South has been unique in American culture. And the world of the imagination is no exception.
America’s official mythology has always been millenialist, which is to say we are a nation constantly seeking the Earthly Paradise. Ever since Adam and Eve were exiled to the east of Eden, the movement of civilization has been westward--from Mesopotamia through Asia and Europe, then after 1492, across the Atlantic to the New World. From the time of Columbus until well into the nineteenth century (and sporadically thereafter), poets and the more heretical theologians have depicted America as a second Garden of Eden and the American as a new Adam--if not technically free of Sin, at least an heroic innocent always on the verge of discovering or creating that Shining City on a Hill. As we shall see, the official anthem of that particular American dream is Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The problem with seeking an Earthly Paradise, even in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, is that we will never find it. (If we did, there would be angels with flaming swords preventing us from claiming it as our own.) In the process, we are apt to become dissatisfied with our more mundane terrestrial homes. The canon of American literature revered by certified intellectuals and taught in university classrooms is filled with protagonists (almost always male) who seek personal fulfillment by running away from home. These include Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, Thoreau’s image of himself at Walden Pond, Cooper’s Hawkeye, Melville’s Ishmael, Twain’s Huck Finn, Hemingway’s Nick Adams, and the four suburbanites of James Dickey’s Deliverance. If they are not trying to create a communal utopia, they are at least trying to get away from a home environment that is closer to Hell than Heaven on Earth.
Although the South has had its share of renegades and malcontents, Southern literature tends not to be millenialist. For Southerners, the New World Adam is a less useful model than Homer’s Odysseus--a hero who survives adversity and temptation, who literally passes through Hell itself, to return to a real home--complete with a middle-aged wife and a grown son he remembers only as an infant. Home may not be Heaven, but Southerners--in the tradition of Odysseus--sense that it is the closest we are likely to come this side of the Apocalypse. The image of the South in our most enduring works of popular literature is the image of Home. Even when it is idealized, it possesses a far more palpable reality than any imagined El Dorado. It could be argued that Foster and Emmett, both of whom lived largely itinerant lives, found a kind of adopted home in their dream of the South. It seems undeniable that millions of people worldwide have had such a reaction when listening to their great songs. That may also be why there has been such an effort in recent years to suppress them.
Although contemporary artists such as James Taylor and Emmylou Harris have recorded versions of Stephen Foster’s songs and a recent PBS documentary celebrated him as an “American Master,” his music seems to be disappearing from our cultural memory. As recently as the 1950s, when I attended a public elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, Foster’s songs were part of the official curriculum. But, even if they had not been, I had first heard about the Swanee River years earlier when my father (who never lived in the South) gave me the first baths that I can remember. In a recent article in the Southern Review, the literary critic James Olney recalls that, when he was a school child in Marathon, Iowa, fifty years ago, he and his classmates sang “over and over again, until they were deeply etched into memory, such songs as ‘Camptown Races,’ ‘Old Folks at Home,’ and ‘Oh! Susanna. . . There we were children not of the Cotton Belt but of the Corn Belt, required to sing every verse of a song like ‘Ring, Ring de Banjo.’” In 1928, the state legislature of Kentucky made Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” the official state song. The Florida legislature did the same for “Old Folks at Home” in 1935. In 1951, a joint resolution of the U. S. Congress “declared Foster’s songs ‘a national statement of democracy’” and Foster himself “the father of American folk music.” Why, then, is this one-time American icon largely unknown to Americans who came of age in the 1960s and later?
The demise of Stephen Foster’s reputation coincides with the ritualistic trashing of the Old South in American popular culture. The historian Clyde Wilson has noted that, for nearly a century after the War Between the States, the dominant American culture allowed the South to celebrates its traditions and history, so long as the people of the South agreed to wave Old Glory and fight in the nation’s wars. On the whole, depictions of the South in music, film, and commercial literature were either benign or affirmative. It was only after the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s that it became necessary to demonize the South in a manner that had not been seen since the heyday of Abolitionism. Far from ending with the passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation and the election of two presidents from Southern states, this demonology has continued and even intensified in recent decades. If we look at Foster’s best known songs about the South, it is clear why those songs must be suppressed by the anti-Southern cultural elite. The message of Foster’s lyrics, along with the power of his music to move the hearts of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, is nothing less than subversive.
In “Old Black Joe,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Folks at Home,” the South is presented as a homeland that is desirable, biracial, and lost. As I have already suggested, the image of a desirable home runs counter to one of the central dogmas of canonical American literature. So, Foster starts out with one strike against him. If the desirable home had been anywhere other than the South, however, his work probably would have been dismissed by the cultural elite as nothing more than harmless sentimental drivel. To idealize the South, of course, adds political incorrectness to aesthetic gaucherie. To suggest that blacks may have felt some measure of attachment to that benighted land challenges the notion that the antebellum South was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany and that slavery was an American Holocaust. To be sure, these are considerations that probably never occurred to Foster or his original audience, but they are the reasons why his songs have fallen into such official disfavor in our own time. The great Southern poet and critic Donald Davidson once argued that the South suffered three defeats at the hands of its enemies. The first was losing the War Between the States. The second was losing the peace during Reconstruction. The third, and most lingering, defeat has been to lose control of our history and our culture. Davidson made this observation in 1929, long before the national assault on all things Southern had become a crusade of cultural genocide.
It has been argued that one cannot acknowledge the attachment that many slaves felt to the South and its people (both black and white) without seeming to justify slavery. Clearly, this is specious reasoning. Although slavery surely did not produce contentment, the bonds of regional affection were frequently so strong that they transcended the injustice of human bondage. As the escaped slave and prominent abolitionist Lewis Clarke observed in 1845: “Some people are very much afraid all the slaves will run up North, if they are ever free. But I can assure them that they will run back again if they do. If I could have been assured of my freedom in Kentucky, then, I would have given anything in the world for the prospect of spending my life among my old acquaintances, and where I first saw the sky, and the sun rise and go down.” African repatriation has never worked because African Americans are more American than they are African. And to a considerable extent, they are Southern Americans.
Like several of Foster’s other songs about the South, the tone of “Old Black Joe” is elegiac.
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay;
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away;
Gone from this earth to a better land, I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe!”
What makes Joe convincingly human, and not just a stereotype--racial or otherwise--is his ambivalent feelings about the prospect of entering Heaven. When the voices of his departed friends beckon him, he tells them: “I’m coming, I’m coming,” but at the same time he asks himself: “Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain? / Why do I sigh that my friends come not again, / Grieving for forms departed long ago?” Rather than joyously anticipating Heaven (where there will presumably be no racial discrimination, much less slavery), Joe keeps thinking of the more tangible pleasures of his youth: “Where are the hearts so happy and so free? / The children so dear that I held upon my knee? / Gone to the shores where my soul has longed to go.” Because he is a man of faith, Joe proceeds confidently to future glory, but there is at least a part of him that would prefer to return to the past. This psychological tension makes “Old Black Joe” a credible portrait of a recognizable person. It is also a strongly anti-millenialist statement. If the memory of one’s real home can seem more affecting than the certainty of an ideal afterlife, how much better it must be than the chimerical hope of an Earthly Paradise.
Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” was inspired by the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century--Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both works lament the loss of a home in Kentucky. Foster’s original audience would certainly have thought of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and several later stage versions of Stowe’s novel featured “My Old Kentucky Home,” along with several of Foster’s other songs. This fact alone should absolve Foster of the charge of justifying, much less glorifying, slavery. Far from being incompatible with opposition to slavery, a black man’s love of his Southern home and his Southern masters was an important feature of the most famous anti-slavery novel ever written. As much as she hated slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s view of the South was not all that different from Stephen Foster’s.
Although Abraham Lincoln was certainly exaggerating when he called Mrs. Stowe the little lady who started the big war, Uncle Tom’s Cabin did hasten the war by fueling abolitionist passions. Nevertheless, the Southern whites depicted in that novel are generally good people, who are themselves victimized by an unjust institution. (Stowe’s most loathsome slaveowner, Simon Legree, is a native of Vermont.) Next to Uncle Tom himself, the saintliest character in the novel is Little Eva, the daughter of Tom’s most benevolent owner--Augustine St. Clare. George Aiken’s stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ends with the martyred Tom ascending to Heaven, where he is greeted not by Saint Peter or Jesus Christ but by Little Eva herself. (Too pure to live in this Vale of Tears, Eva has preceded Tom to Glory.) At one point in the novel, Little Eva concludes--with no trace of irony--that God must approve of slavery because it gives her more people to love.
The humble dwelling referred to in the title of Stowe’s novel is a slave cabin on a plantation in Kentucky. Uncle Tom is forced to leave his old Kentucky home and his loving family when his otherwise indulgent owner, Mr. Shelby, falls into debt and is forced to liquidate some of his more valuable human assets. The speaker in Foster’s song is a slave, who could very well be Uncle Tom. Like Old Black Joe, he begins by remembering the idyllic home he has lost:
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkeys are gay;
The corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
The beauty of the natural setting is enhanced by the singer’s recollection of friends and family: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, / All merry, all happy and bright.” These images are all the more compelling for being rendered in present tense. But then, reality intrudes: “By’n by, hard times comes a knocking at the door, / Then my old Kentucky home, good-night.” If we read these lines in the context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is the hard times experienced by the slaveowner that deprive the slave of his home. But Stowe and Foster both knew that even a nominally free worker can lose home and family to hard times. This was a recurrent experience in Foster’s own brief, unhappy life. It is also the theme of his great song “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” which is probably his only composition to be viewed with favor by the commissars of political correctness.
Throughout the 1850s, Southern apologists argued that slaves in the South enjoyed more social and economic security than the typical factory worker in the North. (The most famous literary formulation of this argument is William J. Grayson’s poem “The Hireling and the Slave.”) This position was reiterated in the twentieth century by such Marxists as the literary critic Edmund Wilson and the historian Eugene Genovese. Even in the debates over slavery immediately prior to the War Between the States, honest Northern liberals such as Orestes Brownson noted the hypocrisy of Yankee abolitionists decrying slavery in the South while turning a blind eye to the plight of factory workers in their own backyard. Stowe herself has Augustine St. Clare make precisely this point when his self-righteous cousin from New England comes to visit.
W. C. Handy, the black bandleader who is often called the “The Father of the Blues,” has written: “The well of sorrow from which Negro music is drawn is also a well of mystery. I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow. ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ makes you think so, at any rate. Something there suggests close acquaintance with my people.” Significantly, the consolation that Foster offers for this well of sorrow is neither religious nor political but aesthetic. The chorus of his song proclaims: “Weep no more, my lady, / Oh! weep no more today! / We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home, / For the old Kentucky home far away.”
The lament in “Old Folks at Home” is for a region in Central Florida that Foster knew only as a name on a map. Although one of his biographers makes much of the fact that a community of free African Americans once lived in this region, Foster probably thought of it in more generic terms as the archetypal lost home. As such, it has been embraced not just by nostalgic Southern whites but also by Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, first-generation Jewish Americans singing in blackface of Mammy and those old cotton fields back home--with additional lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Despite Foster’s use of the now archaic term “darkey,” which would not have been considered offensive in his own time, “Old Folks at Home” has long struck a responsive chord with black listeners, as well. One of the most innovative versions of this song is Ray Charles’s “Swanee River Rock.” (Ornette Coleman has recorded an instrumental version of “Old Black Joe.”) A year after the release of “Swanee River Rock” in 1957, the highly respected jazz saxophonist Sidney Beeches was joined by Buck Clayton on trumpet and Vic Dickenson on trombone in an historic concert version of “Old Folks” performed in Brussels. Nearly twenty years earlier a recording of “29 Modern Piano Interpretations of ‘Swanee River’” had included piano versions by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Claude Thornhill. It is not surprising that black jazz artists have been able see beyond tendentious political arguments to appreciate the emotional truth of Foster’s music.
Unlike “My Old Kentucky Home,” there is no indication of “hard times” in “Old Folks at Home.” Instead, the plantation on the Swanee River seems to represent the persona’s lost youth. “All up and down da whole creation, / Sadly I roam,” he sings, “Still longing for de old plantation, /And for de old folks at home.” In a sense, he is bemoaning a lost Eden; but, unlike the American Adam, he has no expectation of recovering that Earthly Paradise, much less finding a new and better one to replace it. In a twentieth-century poem on a similar theme, Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” we read of youth’s “heedless ways.” Foster puts the matter as follows: “All round de little farm I wandered / When I was young, / Den many happy days I squandered, / Many the songs I sung.” In contrast to the prodigal timelessness of his youth, Foster’s persona now lives in a fallen creation: “All de world am sad and dreary, / Ebrywhere I roam, / Oh! darkeys, how my heart grows weary, / Far from de old folks at home.” If Foster has a “darkey” addressing fellow “darkeys” here, it is not because he is a racist but because he realizes that African Americans are on much more intimate terms with the deep well of sorrow he is trying to express. The response of blacks from W. C. Handy to Ray Charles would suggest that he was right.
Like the Southern homes in Stephen Foster’s songs, Dan Emmett’s Dixie is a land recoverable only in memory. When the singer tells us “I wish I was in the land ob cotton,” it is clear that he is no longer there. This longing backward glance to a place where old times “are not forgotten” stands in stark contrast to the apocalyptic rhetoric of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” set appropriately enough to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” In fact, there is probably no better gloss on the contrasts between North and South than the words of these two signature songs.
The hero of Howe’s song seems to be a composite of John Brown, Abe Lincoln, and Christ himself. He is not just a tribal god preparing to lay waste the enemies of his people but a millenialist deity, who will bring the world to judgment and history itself to a grand finale. This is not just nationalistic jingoism but a Taliban mentality. One can easily imagine the hijackers of September 11 singing some Arabic version of the following words:
I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel
Since God is marching on.
The singer of “Dixie” makes no claim to being an avenging angel of the Lord. His loyalty is to a very earthly home where he was born “early on a frosty morn.” One scarcely knows what to make of Howe’s demigod “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” But we can all join in Emmett’s celebration of a place where “buckwheat cakes and Injun batters, makes you fat, then a little fatter.” At their best, Southerners have been less apt than their Puritan brethren to the North to confuse politics and religion, much less to fight holy wars. Robert E. Lee, who philosophically opposed both slavery and secession, fought for his homeland of Virginia--even though he had been offered command of the invading federal troops. When Southerners look for God, they see Him in Heaven or on the altar of their local church--not “in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps.”
To be sure, Dan Emmett never intended to write an anthem for the Confederacy. He simply wanted a song that he could use in his career as a blackface minstrel. If anything, his own sympathies were pro-Union. But, when a work of literature enters the popular imagination, the intentions of its author are no longer decisive. Ever since “Dixie” was played at the inauguration of our late president Jefferson Davis and sung by Confederate soldiers far from home, it has become synonymous with the cause of the South. And, as we know, it has even struck a responsive chord with persons antagonistic to that cause. When Abraham Lincoln was serenaded on the morning after Lee’s surrender, he asked the band to play “Dixie” because he thought it one of the best tunes he had ever heard. Consider the fact that, if Lincoln were alive today, he couldn’t get a job as a band director at any major university in this country--North or South.
When Southern universities ban the Confederate flag from their football stadiums and strike “Dixie” from the band’s repertoire, it is usually done in the name of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” In the Orwellian Newspeak of political correctness, “diversity” means that Southerners must think only in the accepted way, while “multiculturalism” requires them to celebrate every culture except their own. It is too convenient to blame this situation on radical academics and the left wing zealots of the National Democratic Party. For more than a decade now the Republican Right has also pursued what can only be described as an anti-Southern strategy.
It was under Republican governor George Pataki that the Georgia state flag, which then contained the cross of St. Andrew from the Confederate battle flag, was removed from New York’s Hall of Flags. It was a Republican governor and legislature that rejected “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” as Virginia’s state song. In Texas, the minions of a former governor who has since moved on to higher office illegally removed two inoffensive plaques, put up years ago by Confederate widows in the state Supreme Court building. Shortly before he died last year South Carolina congressman Floyd Spence asked that his casket be draped with the Confederate Flag and that “Dixie” be sung at his funeral. Unfortunately, these wishes were not granted because one Richard Cheney let it be known that he would not attend an event where the Confederate flag was seen or “Dixie” was heard. So, when we sing that wonderful song, let’s do it loud enough that the Vice President will be forced to hear it in his secure location.
The last time I sang “Dixie” was this past March. Two years earlier, Republican politicians--at the bidding of the Chamber of Commerce and a former governor of their own party--had removed the Confederate battle flag from the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina. “We love the South and its heritage,” they said, “but the battle flag has been so appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi skinheads that we really need to move it from the dome to the Confederate Monument on the state house grounds. The NAACP will be satisfied, and we will then be free to honor any and all Southern symbols.” Things didn’t quite turn out that way. The NAACP continued its racist boycott of our state and has even voted to shun two veteran black politicians and civil rights activists who have had the temerity to disagree with the boycott.
Then, two and a half months ago, the League of the South placed a state sovereignty flag (which has never been waved by Klansmen or skinheads) by the side of the road on the John C. Calhoun Memorial Highway to celebrate the anniversary of Calhoun’s birth. Far from leaving us alone, the mayor of Clemson, South Carolina, the local delegation to the state legislature, and unidentified officials of Clemson University pressured the Department of Highways into removing the flag. (Not only was the removal illegal, but the involvement of the university was particularly meanspirited, given the fact that that institution is located on land once owned by John C. Calhoun and bequeathed to the state of South Carolina by Calhoun’s son-in-law, Thomas Green Clemson.) Not content with this single assault on the First Amendment, the Clemson City Council immediately considered a motion opposing any public display of a Confederate Flag or “flag of similar design.” The night that that motion was considered, forty redshirted members of the League packed the council chambers in an effort to educate their representatives about the meaning of various flags and the beliefs of John C. Calhoun. Although one courageous councilman voted our way, the other four approved the anti-flag motion. At that point, we filed out of the council chambers, singing “Dixie” and waving various Confederate flags and flags of “similar design.”
In the end, all of our closely reasoned historical and philosophical arguments were probably less eloquent than the simple singing of “Dixie.” It is necessary to debate political hacks and phony intellectuals, not because there is much likelihood of converting them, but to keep them from hoodwinking those who still maintain an open mind. But what is of utmost importance is maintaining a spirit of independence in the hearts of the Southern people. Along with the Confederate flag, “Dixie” is an outward symbol of that spirit. We should therefore rejoice in the fact that the image of the South not only remains dear to many Southerners but that it has taken root in the imagination of Dan Emmett, Stephen Foster, and others not privileged to have been born in the land of cotton. As that Minnesota boy F. Scott Fitzgerald observed in his story “The Last of the Belles”: “Poetry is a Northern man’s dream of the South.”
Mark Royden Winchell is Professor of English at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. He is the author of numerous books, including Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism.