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How 'Dixie' Became And Endured As An Anthem


Now the story of what may be this country's most divisive song. "Dixie" was the rallying cry of the Confederacy during the Civil War. For our series American Anthem, NPR's Bilal Qureshi crisscrossed the Mason-Dixon Line to explore how "Dixie" became and endures as an anthem. And a warning, this story contains a racial slur.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: When my Pakistani immigrant parents chose Richmond, Va., as our American hometown, they didn't realize the city had a preexisting condition - nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy.


QURESHI: Growing up, the ghosts of the Old South were everywhere - rebel flags waving from pickup trucks and Confederate monuments along the city's main avenue. For four years, Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. And if that country had an anthem, it was "Dixie." But the song was born in the north, says historian Ed Ayers, who lives in Richmond.

ED AYERS: "Dixie" actually was only created in 1859 as a minstrel show in Ohio, which people tend to forget that minstrelsy was the most popular art form in the United States. White men in blackface, very often from the north, imagining happy enslaved people.


HARLAN AND STANLEY: (Singing) I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away. Look away. Look away. Dixie Land.

AYERS: And parodying them at the same time that they are pretending to be them. So it's a very weird thing for people to have adopted as a national anthem of the Confederacy.

QURESHI: The Confederacy was a pop-up nation. And its soldiers needed a song, says musician Bryant Henderson.

BRYANT HENDERSON: There weren't a whole lot of songs. There weren't anthems as such and particularly about the South. And "Dixie" was a hot, popular hit.

QURESHI: Henderson is at Gettysburg with the 2nd South Carolina String Band for the re-enactment of the war's defining battle.


QURESHI: After a long day of fighting, soldiers gather by candlelight under the big tent close the night with "Dixie."


TONY HORWITZ: The tune is tremendously catchy. Whenever I hear it, I find myself humming it all day. It's really a wonderful song if you ignore all the racial and political overtones.

QURESHI: Journalist Tony Horwitz is the author of "Confederates In The Attic," a book in which he traced the enduring legacy of the lost cause. Horwitz says while "Dixie" can work inside the parameters of a re-enactment, in real America, the song is tangled up with the history of racism and segregation.

HORWITZ: "Dixie" was part of the score of "Birth of a Nation" - the movie that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. It was embraced by the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. And in the 1950s, it was sung by white women protesting the integration of schools.

QURESHI: By the 1970s, it was on prime time, says historian Ed Ayers.

AYERS: Think of "Dukes Of Hazzard." Their horn plays the first notes of "Dixie."


QURESHI: But Dixie's biggest platform was the Southern football stadium and nowhere more prominently than the University of Mississippi and its Pride of the South marching band.


CHRIS PRESLEY: My name is Chris Presley. And I was the drum major for the Pride of the South marching band at Ole Miss. My first two years, I was playing "Dixie" with the marching band. And then my last few years, I was conducting the song.

QURESHI: Chris Presley is African-American. And he says despite the song's divisive history, during games, "Dixie" could become a unifying anthem.

PRESLEY: Even though the song divided many people, I still saw everyone holding up their pompoms, especially when we were winning during the song of "Dixie."

QURESHI: How many times would it be played in the course of a game?

PRESLEY: Oh, goodness. It really just depends on the football team during that game. You know, if we were winning, maybe 20 times.

QURESHI: The band continued playing "Dixie" until two years ago, when the school finally stopped using it.

RENE MARIE: I have always loved the song "Dixie."

QURESHI: That's jazz singer Rene Marie.

MARIE: As a black person, I knew that it was like, no. You cannot sing this song because it's "Dixie," Rene. But I thought, this song is just about somebody who wishes they were back in their hometown in the South. I can identify with that.

QURESHI: And so she sang it for the first time in Richmond.


MARIE: (Singing) In Dixie land, I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.

QURESHI: Marie says people were shocked as if she'd used the most offensive racial slur.

MARIE: Oh. They sat back, you know, and folded their arms and crossed their legs like, what is this? Because honestly, Bilal, there are certain emblems of this society that are just taboo, you know. Confederate flag is anathema to African-Americans and for good reason. The word nigger is anathema. And the song "Dixie." It's like the trifecta, you know.

QURESHI: But in her arrangement, Rene Marie merges "Dixie" with a song that Billie Holiday made famous about lynching


MARIE: (Singing) Southern trees bare a strange fruit - blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

That's the juxtaposition, isn't it? And both songs are representative of what it's like living in the South.

QURESHI: But that Old South is fading. And I asked Rene Marie if it would be better if one of its symbols, "Dixie," was best forgotten.

MARIE: No. Do not try to erase it. I would say look at it, find out what's going on with your country and stop thinking that it's post anything. It's not post anything. It's all still right here in your face, I mean (laughter) - to use the vernacular. But yes. It's right here. Don't be misled into thinking that everything is fine.


QURESHI: Back in Gettysburg, as the re-enactors take a moment to step out of the sepia-toned past to reflect on the present cycle, there are nods of agreement from one of them - Joe Whitney.

JOE WHITNEY: What's happening today is very similar to what happened back then. You know, you had the breakdown in civil behavior, the breakdown in people hearing the other side and understanding. And, in a way, we want people to learn about this because history may not repeat itself. But it definitely rhymes, as they say.

QURESHI: All of this history is a heavy burden to bear for a song that was intended to be nothing more than a jaunty pop tune. But Civil War historian Ed Ayers says "Dixie" could never be just a song.

AYERS: Once you live in the south - I've chosen to live here, you look around. You see the ghosts of the past everywhere around us. So I can never hear "Dixie" as anything other than a song that has accrued all these meaning over so many generations.

QURESHI: Ayers says even if "Dixie" was expunged, it will always be an anthem in some American hearts - confined but never forgotten, alive and electric as only anthems can be. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.


MARIE: (Singing) Away, away down south in Dixie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.