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