Arts Desk

WETA’s “Fireworks Extravaganza,” as Usual, Includes Three Minstrel Songs


Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1992

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 to Kevin Harris, a vice president and general manager of WETA.

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