Arts Desk

Why Does WETA’s July 4 Fireworks Program Include Two Minstrel-Show Songs?

fireworksTo 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.”

Photo courtesy borman818, Creative Commons License

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  • ralph blessing

    a few years ago I wrote to the late Erich Kunzel, the longtime NSO director for the Capitol Fourth, suggesting that they include "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the so-called Black National Anthem, to broaden the Independence Day celebration. Not only is the song very moving and uplifting, it contains no mention of skin color anywhere. Too bad we get "Dixie" instead.

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ Peter Blaise Monahon

    Kill Dixie -- and handle the fall out with a smile as neo-Nazi white-supremacist Governors like Virginia's Governor McDonnell can lead the hue and cry once again for "celebrating the Confederacy", ignore history, and the loss of the war, and that slavery thing, oh my! =8^o

  • MLH

    The song was allegedly written by composer Daniel Emmett, a Northerner from Ohio, and published in 1859. Emmet's claims of the origin of the song were many and varied. According to one such version, Emmett was taught the song by the Snowden family of African American musicians, then freemen of color, with the lyrics coming from a letter written longingly of life in the south by Evelyn Snowden to her father. Emmett's blackface minstrel-show troupe debuted the song that same year in New York City and it became an immediate hit. The song became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The tune's minstrel-show origins have created a strong association of "Dixie" with the Old South, despite the fact that it was written in the North. As a result, some today perceive the song as offensive and racist while many see it as a legitimate part of Southern heritage. Abraham Lincoln, upon hearing of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, asked the military band to play Dixie.

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  • Emily M Wimberly

    I agree with Andrea Graham, they lost and there is no reason why after 15 years, the format can't be updated.

  • I Kellogg

    For some reason the thought of Paul Robeson came to mind when I heard Elvis singing "Dixie." I could only think of how Robeson at one time decided to change some of the words to the music of "Old Man River"... The original: Ah gits weary / An' sick of tryin'; / Ah'm tired of livin' / An skeered of dyin', / But Ol' Man River, / He jes' keeps rolling along!" , Robeson sang "But I keeps laffin'/ Instead of cryin' / I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!" per Wikkepedia

    Elvis singing "Dixie" was not music to my ears, maybe so I turned off the TV.

  • I Kellogg

    For some reason the thought of Paul Robeson came to mind when I heard Elvis singing "Dixie." I could only think of how Robeson at one time decided to change some of the words to the music of "Old Man River"... The original: Ah gits weary / An' sick of tryin'; / Ah'm tired of livin' / An skeered of dyin', / But Ol' Man River, / He jes' keeps rolling along!" , Robeson sang "But I keeps laffin'/ Instead of cryin' / I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!" per Wikipedia

    Elvis singing "Dixie" was not music to my ears, maybe so I turned off the TV.

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