Dixie, Stephen Foster and the Song Track of Our Childhoods

 

The Golden Book

 

“I wish I was in de land oh cotton, old times dar am not forgotten,

Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

In Dixie Land whar I was born in, Early on one frosty mornin’,

Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land! Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray, Hooray! 

In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to lib and die in Dixie.Away, away, away down south in Dixie….”

I picture myself as one of about thirty white children ranging in age from six to thirteen, in a rural one-room school near Stoughton, Wisconsin in the 1950s, heartily singing this song, “Dixie,” (as we did). It takes me back and it prompts questions about the role of music in our early years and what if any imprinting it may have done.

In those rural one-room schools that endured until the mid-1900s, one teacher taught all subjects to all eight grades, including music. I really can’t imagine managing all that. Of course, they relied on basic curriculums and standard songbooks. For our regular music time, we relied heavily on The Golden Book of Favorite Songs, A Treasury of the Best Songs of Our People.

The Golden Book was first published in 1915 with subsequent copyrights in 1923 and 1946. Probably thousands of schools used this popular volume around the country as a first exposure to American music for millions of children. The nostalgic value for many of us is indicated by the price of “vintage” copies of the 1946 edition on Amazon.com: $799.39 and $855.58. Now reprint copies are also available.

I remember not only using it regularly at school but also receiving my own copy as a reward from my teacher Mrs. Olson at the end of first grade. She had written in the front “To a very sweet girl with a very sweet voice.” Somehow through the years, I lost that special copy of The Golden Book but happened to find one of those reprints on Amazon.com some years ago.

I haven’t paid much attention to it recently, until reading a reference to “Dixie” – one of the songs I first learned in that book. I found my songbook to see if the authorship and background of the song matched and took some time to examine the whole volume. I have recently been doing a lot of reading and viewing about cultural diversity and how racist policies and practices have been built into American culture and commerce. A part of that is also understanding how the actual events of our history have been taught and told from a largely white view over the years. There’s so much more to learn to have a full view of who we are as a nation and why.

Looking at The Golden Book as an iconic mode of learning during at least half of the past century is quite enlightening. It is an interesting combination of three major elements: 1) patriotism: quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge to the Flag, The American’s Creed, and the Gettysburg Address plus all of the typical patriotic songs; 2) religion:  a responsive reading from the Psalms, several Christmas carols, and a group of typical hymns sung in Protestant churches; and 3) culture.

Culture is the theme of the majority of the songs. One category, “Folk Songs,” includes several Stephen Foster compositions – “Old Black Joe,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home,” “Uncle Ned,” and “Massa’s in the Cold Ground.” Other songs in that category come from Scottish, Irish, English and other Northern European countries.

Reading the words to the Foster songs makes me cringe. I wish I remembered how I reacted to them when I was 7 or 10 or 12 years old. Our area of southern Wisconsin was all white and far enough from Milwaukee that we weren’t regularly exposed to the diversity and issues of that city as young children. These songs provide imagery, words written in dialect, and depictions of formerly enslaved people as missing and yearning for a return to those days. Noted in this section of “The Golden Book” is that Stephen Foster lived from 1836 to 1864, pre-Civil War. It states that he often visited “Negro camp meetings and there studied the music of the colored people.”

For example, from “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” –

“Massa make de darkeys love him, Cayse he was so kind,Now dey sadly weep above him,

mourning cayse he leave dem behind. I cannot work before tomorrow, Cayse de tears drop now.

I try to drive away my sorrow, picking on de old banjo. Down in de cornfield, hear dat mournful sound;

all de darkeys am aweeping.Massa’s in de cold, cold ground.”

What did we think about that? How did we process it? What messages were implanted that we couldn’t even articulate? How did the songs fit into what we were explicitly taught? I wish I had access to some of the textbooks we used back then. How did they address slavery and describe Black people? How whitewashed were the descriptions?

 Going back to “Dixie,” notes in The Golden Book indicate it was written by Dan D. Emmett to be performed by the minstrel group of which he was a part, Bryant’s Minstrels, in 1859. This all-white group that performed in black face was one of the most popular of the time. “It became the great inspirational song of the Confederate Army” notes also indicated. (I learned elsewhere that Emmett disavowed the song’s association with the Confederacy.) Minstrelsy was popular from the late 1830s into the 1920s and even beyond in various forms.

Have you thought about how the music you heard and sang when you were a child affected you? What kinds of songs were they? What were the messages, implicit, explicit and inferred? How might these still be affecting your beliefs and attitudes today? Ask those same questions about the music your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and other children are hearing and singing today.

As white folks striving to expand our knowledge and awareness of American history in all its dimensions so that we can change things that must be changed, this kind of learning and reflection is so important. It’s an essential part of creating a more perfect union.