Last summer, when my baby daughter was only about a month old, I (breaking all the rules I had sworn by before she was born) used to watch TV while I was feeding her. To be fair, judgy moms, I had the sound off and the closed captioning on. One morning she was fussing, so I tried to soothe her by singing. Also, feel free to judge me on this one, but I get pretty tired of singing repetitive children’s songs, and there are only a few other songs I know the words to. These include “Girls’ School” by Rasputina, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by the Band. I went with “Dixie” that morning, and no sooner had I begun to sweetly croon it to my little one that the TV cut to footage of the Confederate flag being removed from the South Carolina State House.
As it should be, of course — in the wake of the recent Charleston church shooting I had formed the opinion that the flag had no place on that building, and that no matter what folks say about heritage, you have to come to terms with the fact that a large number of people find the image intimidating and racist. The swastika didn’t start off as a Nazi symbol, but Hitler went and ruined it for everyone, so… yeah. The flag should come down. But what did it mean that I was singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to my daughter at the same time I was celebrating the lowering of the flag?
In short, is it racist to like that song? Should I not be singing it to my daughter?
You can look at the lyrics here, and read a wonderful pile of interpretations here. I’ve read most of the page and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I enjoy the song. I think that it doesn’t so much say that “the South will rise again” or glorify the Confederacy as much as it shows how the average person can be ground up in the slaughterhouse of other men’s wars. We seem to gather up our working class boys and send them off to fight battles dreamed up by Ivy leaguers. I don’t think the Caine family owned slaves. I think they were poor before the war started, and they were destitute when it was over. These were not the O’Haras, people. It makes you think about the toll shared by the whole family of those who engage in military conflict and gives a Yankee pause to understand that not all of the Rebs were %100 pure evil in any sense of the word. I like how the article compares the song to The Red Badge of Courage, and I could see how the Band would have found this narrative similar in a way to the war in Vietnam.
I think it’s interesting the song was covered by Joan Baez, known for her interpretations of others’ songs. As a civil rights activist, if the song was racist, would she sing it? Or in singing it, was she reclaiming it, challenging it, much like Tori Amos did when she made Strange Little Girls?
As for my daughter, well, I think I may stop singing it to her, because I’m not comfortable answering her questions about it. “Yes, honey, I’m singing about the sadness of the Caine family brought about by the Yankees, but they were actually the good guys, but there were economic factors that most people don’t consider when vilifying the South…” etc. etc.
I will continue to enjoy it in private, because I have a serious thing for sad, rustic-sounding songs. That’s the only way I can classify them; I’m not sure if they’re folk, country, bluegrass, or what, but I just adore sad rustic songs, and this one is the penultimate.
When Alyssa is old enough, I’ll explain it to her, I promise.