Arts Desk

Yep, WETA’s “Fireworks Extravaganza” Still Has Minstrel Songs

Every year, WETA airs a program called "D.C. Fireworks Extravaganza" following its live broadcast of the "Capitol Fourth" concert. And every year, "D.C. Fireworks Extravaganza" includes some minstrel songs. Tomorrow's schedule is no different, and according to a WETA spokesperson, "Fireworks Extravaganza" hasn't changed—which is why Washington City Paper will continue its own annual tradition. Below, my article from July 1, 2010, about WETA's annual celebration of explosives and the culturally insensitive American songbook.

To Andrea Graham, the unofficial anthem of the Confederate States of America has no place soundtracking the Fourth of July. “They lost,” she says. “We don’t play Japan’s patriotic song.”

For years, the Potomac, Md., resident had been griping about WETA’s annual DC Fireworks Extravaganza show. Every July 4, the public television station follows its broadcast of the “Capitol Fourth” concert on the National Mall with a half-hour fireworks program using stock footage. That footage’s musical program includes Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Dixie,” the 1850s minstrel song that’s now considered an American standard.

In 2002, Graham wrote to WETA: “‘Dixie’ is totally inappropriate for an Independence Day celebration...The first time I was exposed to Elvis and Dixie, I thought it was an aberration. But each year it is there.”

The Fireworks Extravaganza didn’t include “Dixie” in 2003, Graham says, but the song was back in 2004, along with another minstrel-show song that her husband recognized: “Old Black Joe.” She wrote again. This time she heard from a representative of the station, who told her, she says, that the half-hour block “is not WETA’s program and there is nothing they can do about it.”

The footage was shot on the National Mall in 1992, according to Kevin Harris, a vice president and general manager of WETA. For years, the station showed the “Capitol Fourth” concert and the subsequent fireworks live, but as the concert increasingly stuck to a 90-minute schedule beginning at 8 p.m., the station began showing live fireworks during the credits and then running 30 minutes of the stock footage starting at around 9:30.

The audio and video was captured by a WETA production truck; that night, Harris says, radio station WMAL was hosting the festivities and broadcasting its own program of music. (After watching the footage, WETA Vice President for External Affairs Mary Stewart recognized “Dixie” as part of a Presley medley, “An American Trilogy.” She didn’t recognize “Old Black Joe.”)

Some scholars say the songs still have a place in American culture, as long as they’re presented with context. Music historian Elijah Wald says, “[The genre] is not simply racist, but it is certainly among other things racist.”

Ken Emerson, a biographer of Stephen Foster, the man who composed “Old Black Joe” in 1860, says that although many minstrel songs are racially offensive, “Old Black Joe” isn’t necessarily one of them. Looking at the lyrics, “it’s a very sympathetic song,” says Emerson, also a communications consultant whose clients have included WETA. “We might not like today to use the word ‘black,’ but it’s not derogatory.” He points out that Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois praised Foster, even as they deplored blackface.

“Of course there’s racism in this music—there’s racism in all the history of the 19th century. You can’t expunge it,” Emerson says. “I think you can play anything as long as you explain [to listeners] what they’re about to hear and why they’re about to hear it and what they’re about to learn from it.”

Harris, who’s African-American, says he doesn’t find the songs offensive. WETA, he notes, gets one, sometimes two, calls every year about “Dixie”: “The phones don’t ring off the line, even though it’s our most watched program of the year.”

A few days later, I followed up. From July 4, 2010:

Last week, I spoke with two vice presidents of WETA about the public television station's annual "D.C. Fireworks Extravaganza" program—and why the archival footage, shot in 1992 on the National Mall, includes two minstrel-show songs: "Dixie," now considered an American standard, and "Old Black Joe."

They told me they receive one, sometimes two complaints about the selections each year. I asked if they had any plans to change the programming—either by editing it or canceling it altogether. They said no.

If you watched WETA tonight, you saw that that was the case—"DC Fireworks Extravaganza" aired as usual. And it turns out it includes a third minstrel-show song, "Camptown Races," which was part of an instrumental medley that included "Dixie" and "Old Black Joe," as well as parts of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Dvořák's New World Symphony, and other compositions. Presumably, the medley was going for some sort of reconciliatory North-South dichotomy.

"Dixie" reappeared later in the program, sung by Elvis Presley as part of his "American Trilogy," which also includes the spiritual "All My Trials" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The footage is shown each year between broadcasts of the "A Capital Fourth" concert on the mall. In 1992, a WETA production truck captured the footage. The music was programmed that night by radio station WMAL, according toKevin Harris, a vice president and general manager of WETA.

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  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Could Ken Burns be reached for comment?

  • Cosmo

    After 20 years, they ought to just junk this version and do a new one in high-def.

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