Observation — IRAS-Araki-Alcock
Bob Dylan's American Journey

Hearts in Dixie



Lately, I spend a lot of my time in university libraries, city and county libraries, and state historical societies, often looking through old newspapers from around 1925 to 1959. I now have no patience for anybody who ever feels "bored" — just pick up a newspaper from the 1920's and go nuts.

I recently ran across the headline above in a July 1929 newspaper from St. Paul, Minnesota. "Hearts in Dixie" has been written about often by scholars working on media images of African Americans, and I can't add much to that work. The main subject of interest, of course, is the racist nostalgia for the antebellum South to which the movie appealed and which it reinforced.

But for me, finding the particular article above drove home a few things. It appeared in a newspaper from one of the highest latitudes in America — Minnesota's state motto is "The Star of the North." The article reminds me again that these fantasies of blacks yearning for the happy days of slavery were not solely — in fact, not primarily — southern fantasies. A lot of northerners liked images of African Americans who wanted to go back where they came from.

Roughly the same preference gave rise, a hundred years before, to black-face minstrelsy, which was invented in northern cities like New York and Boston and remained more wildly popular there than in the South. I often think of the American vision of Ireland as a place where people are always covered with shamrocks and drink green beer — a total lack of familiarity is ideal for growing fantasies.

For our purposes, gentle Celestial Monochord reader, it's the article's musical content that's most interesting. The short article consists almost exclusively of a list of 25 songs that appear in the movie. Presumably, the writer believed the Minnesota audience would recognize these songs and have an opinion about them. I have a relatively shaky grasp of the history of where that belief came from.

A few of the songs are familiar to me from simply being an American. I don't know, I guess I heard them in grade school — "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen", "Old Folks at Home", and "Swanee River".

But a surprising number of the listed songs were completely unknown to me until I started listening intensively to what's known today as "Old Time" music — The New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Brad and Alice, and so on. Others may have been familiar before, but I now closely associate them with old time, bluegrass, or the Harry Smith Anthology. The article lists "Lonesome Road", "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray", "Li'l Liza Jane", "Shine On", "Turkey in the Straw", "Old Hen Cackle", and "Oh Dem Golden Slippers".

As a consumer of so-called roots music, one line of the article is all too familiar:

Some of the other numbers are noteworthy in that they are foundation stones, so to speak, in the structure of jazz music.
Of course, jazz, particularly if loosely defined, was the most popular new music of the day, and it's funny to see that even back then, companies were using dubious claims of historical significance to move product.

I've written before, though, about newspaper stories that cited a kind of old time revival underway in the late 1920's, and this article is further support. One of those articles featured record store owner Harry Bernstein, who discussed the revival entirely in terms of repertoire, as opposed to performance style — it was old songs that were popular, not necessarily old styles of playing. THAT revival had to wait for Harry Smith and the New Lost City Ramblers. I haven't seen "Hearts of Dixie," although I'm sure I'd find the performances rather disappointing, stylistically ... at the very least.

I know vastly more about the history of performance styles and instrumentation than I do about repertoire (Benjamin Filene's chapter on it has helped a lot). This blind spot probably results from my being more directly a product of the revival of the 1950's and 1960's — which was so much about the rebirth of sounds — than a product of the various late-19th and early-20th century revivals, focused as they were on texts. If there had been an article about banjos in Minnesota, I would have had some good contexts in which to understand it, but this list of old songs is a little more mysterious to me.


Editor's Note: This is installment 18 of The Celestial Monochord's great February 2007 adventure — we are posting an entry a day all month long! JUST IMAGINE ... magine ... magine ... THAT ... at ... at ... at ...



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