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Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem.

Whistling Dixie

When Jesse Helms serended Carol Moseley-Braun with a few bars of "Dixie" in a Senate elevator this summer, his racial taunt was as clear and deliberate as a burning cross. The battle hymn of the Confederacy still offends the descendants of slaves, whose blood, sweat and tears stained "de lann ob cotton"--to use the dialect in which the song was first sung by white men with faces blackened by burnt cork. But behind Jesse's insult lurk ironies upon ironies it's unlikely either he or our first female-American senator recognized.

For starters, Dan Emmett, the man generally credited as the composer of "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land," was a Northerner, a true blue Unionist, and he said he wrote the song on a rainy Sunday in a hotel on Elm Street, between Broome and Spring, in what was not yet "lower" Manhattan. First performed by Bryant's Minstrels at Mechanics' Hall in 1859, the song because a national hit even as the nation was tearing apart. The day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Abe Lincoln ordered "Dixie"--"one of the best tunes I ever heard"--to be played on the White House lawn.

This much is old hat to students of nineteenth-century popular music and culture, if not to senators. But even scholars will be startled by Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem. For Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks, a Kenyon College sociologist and independent researcher, respectively, argue that "Dixie" was inspired and possibly even written, in part or in full, by a black musical family named the Snowdens who lived in the same neck of the Ohio woods where Emmett was born and, late in life, returned to die.

There's no question the Snowdens were a remarkable family. In the 1820s, their masters brought Thomas Snowden and Ellen Cooper, separately, from Maryland to Ohio, where they wed in the first marriage ceremony between blacks recorded in Knox County. Precisely how they progressed from slavery to servitude to freedom is unclear, but eventually they settled in Clinton, just north of Mount Vernon (Dan Emmett's hometown), and bore nine children, seven of whom survived infancy. To supplement their income from the family farm--and later to save it, when Thomas's death left them unable to keep up with the mortgage payments--the Snowdens formed a band that sang and played throughout the area. Their "inimitable, moral and pleasant entertainments!"--as one handbill advertised--featured sisters Sophia, Elsie and Annie on violins and brothers Ben and Lew on fiddle and banjo, complemented at times by dulcimer, triangle and guitar. Their repertory, for the most part, was the genteel Top 40 of the era, from "Home, Sweet Home" and "The Old Oaken Bucket" to Stephen Foster songs and "Marching Through Georgia."

Since whites outnumbered blacks in Knox County 28,021 to 61 in 1850, the Snowdens had no choice but to please whites as well as blacks. Their interracial appeal was so great that a white friend wrote Ben Snowden offering $100 to board with the family for a month and learn to play the violin and sing. Nevertheless, Ben and Lew were turned away from the county courthou se when they tried to vote in 1870. They sued, and one of the nation's first voter discrimination cases under the brand-new Fifteenth Amendment dragged on for six years--until the Snowdens Lost (!) and were ordered to pay the defendants' and court's costs. When matriarch Ellen put her foot down and prevented Ben from marrying a white woman, it may have been this and other experiences of racism that motivated her as much as her scandalization that the young woman's mother smoked. In any event, neither Ben nor Lew ever wed. Preserving their mother's Victorian dresses after he death and displaying them to visitors, the brothers lived and played well into the twentieth century, and are still remembered by Knox County old-timers whom the Sackses interviwed.

The Snowdens' is a haunting and heroic story, which the Sackses tell eloquently and, for the most part, accurately. The Snowdens weren't quite as singular as Way Up North in Dixie makes out; Connecticut's Luca Family, for instance, another black familyh band, toured widely in the 1850s and sometimes shared a bill with the famous Hutchinson Family, the Weavers of their day. At one point the Sackses refer to a rendition of James Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" four years before that songwriter's birth; presumably they've confused it with Charles White's earlier minstrel ditty of the same title, also known as "De Floating Scow." These are minor mishaps, however, in highly original and painstaking research. Few outside Knox County have ever heards of the Snowdens, and Way Up North in Dixie is the fullest, most finely detailed account I know of the musical life of a nineteenth-century African-American family anywhere in the United States. The photographs are extraordinary, too: of Lew in the 1870s, for example, proudly displaying his banjos, tambourines and a watch fob of African ivory beads; of the corpse of one of his sisters, posed with her lifeless fingers on the strings and fretboard of a guitar.

Only in their penultimate chapter does the ground the Sackses break become shaky. Their climactic conclusion that the Snowdens had a hand in composing "Dixie" is excruciatingly circumstantial, relying on such tenuous evidence as the handwritten memoir of a niece of a sister-in-law of the sister of Dan Emmett (got that?). When they suggest, for instance, that the reference in "Dixie" to buckwheat cakes may be a memory of the flapjacks served in taverns on the National Road Ellen Snowden traveled from Maryland to Ohio, they overlook more obvious and immediate sources such as "de buckwheat cake was in her mouf" in "Oh! Susanna."

Dan Emmewtt and the Snowdens probably knew each other and possibly even swapped tunes and jammed together, but it's just as impossible to untangle the black and white strains in blackface music as it is in ragtime, jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes, country music and rock and roll--and minstrelsy was an important antecedent of all these many-splendored forms of American popular music. From its very beginnings, pop music has been a bastard, creole form. The same goes for our popular culture generally, from Huckleberry Finn to Mickey Mouse, whose exaggerated black-and-white features, white gloves and big feet, the Sacksesd point out, first appeared in the cartoon "Steamboat Willie"--the very title an evocation of the minstrel era.

Way Up North in Dixie is a fascinating, if slightly flawed, portrait. Eric Lott's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class is a panorama, a sweeping and prodigiously researched study of how "the filthy scum of white society," as Frederick Douglass branded blackface minstrels, played so inspirational a role in the formation of American popular culture. (Indeed, Lott's research was so prodigious he even wrote me and asked for a copy of a brief talk I had given about Stephen Foster. Athough he thanks me in the acknowledgments to Love and Theft, that talk had no apparent influence on the book, nor did that exchange affect this review. We've never met.)

Music is only the half of it, since Lott, who teaches American studies at the University of Virginia, discusses blackface in the context of literature, film and politics. In making a black-white dynamic--minstrelsy's "titillating ambiguity"--central to our entire cultural, Lott is part of a broader trend recently exemplified by Eric J. Sundquist's To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Harvard University) and Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (Oxford). It was only a year ago that Toni Morrison bemoaned, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the color-blindness of American literary studies. Already the Nobel Prize winner's complaint seems woefully out of date.

Shuffling an international alphabet of critics, from Althusser to (Slavoj) Zizek, Lott is almost as polymorphously perverse and miscegenist as minstrelsy itself. Yet it's remarkable how seldon he loses his way in theoretical thickets. Thank God for that, since just the facts, ma'am, of minstrelsy are confusing enough. Consider this, from an 1853 review: "'Lucy Long' was sung by a white negro as a male female danced." Or Master Juba (William Henry Lane), the great black dancer who, after imitating the steps of all the popular Ethiopian (that is to say, blackface) dancers, would climax his performance, a playbill promised, with "an imitation of himself." Postmodernism and highfalutin theories of appropriation can only play catch-up with the complexities of blackface.

"There was in minstrelsy," Lott writes, "an unsteady but structured fluctuation between fascination with (or dread of) 'blackness' and fearful ridicule of it, underscored but not necessarily determined by a fluctuation between sympathetic belief in the authenticity of blackface and ironic distance from its counterfeit representations--within a single audience, and even within individual audience members."

Attributing "the desperate racial ambivalence that minstrelsy's audiences shared"k chiefly to sex and class, Lott provides essentially Freudian and Marxist analyses, respectively, of each anxiety. He may be exaggerating somewhat when he breathlessly describes blackface as a "pornotopia" of infantile, interracial and homoerotic sexual desires, but it can't be coincidental that two of minsdtrelsy's offspring, jazz and rock and roll, are named after black slang words of coitus. A minstrel often wielded his banjo as phallically as a rock star strokes his Stratocaster, and Lott aptly describes an illustration of the first blackface band, the Virginia Minstrels (Emmett was a member--no pun intended), in midsong as having "the air of a collective masturbation fantasy." When a Dan Bryant or a George Christy (of the original Christy Minstrels) donned drag and played a "wench," the violation of gender as well as racial taboos doubled the prurient possibilities and offered something, erotically, for everyone.

Working-class audiences also thrilled to blackface because it simultaneously and contradictorily reinforced their feelings of racial superiority to African-Americans while it encouraged "wage slaves" to identify, however fleetingly, with slave slaves. Lott reminds us that "Jim Crow," T.D. (Daddy) Rice's song and dance, got the blackface boom rolling at the same time abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was founding the Liberator. The reactionary racism of minstrelsy was unmistakable--mobs sometimes hollered blackface ditties while disrupting abolitionist rallies--but the minstrels themselves sided almost to a man with the Union, and songs such as Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin unquestionably stirred sympathy for slaves who were sold down the river or whose families and homes were otherwise shattered.

By concentrating on urban, working-class males, however, Lott unduly circumscribes minstrelsy's appeal and neglects its audience in genteel America, as well as around the world. Women bought sheet-music versions of blackface songs, and cockneys, fellahs and Chinese sang them. Minstrelsy was the first cultural commodity that America exported internationally, before jazz, before cartoons, before Coke, before rocxk. And a its core, Lott points out, was the same racial conundrum that more than a century later compelled guitarist Scotty Moore to swear in wonderment during a recording session with Elvis, "Damn nigger!"

Lott doesn't deny the repugnance of minstrelsy's racism. How could he? It's as a disfiguring as the greasepaint on Al Jolson's nose. But the "Love" in Lott's title acknowledges that blackface was/is more than just a racist ripoff and suggests how psychologically complex as well as politically incorrect American popular culture can be. Love and Theft is the richest, most satisfying book about blackface since Hans Nathan's magisterial Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy, more than thirty years ago. Read it and decide for yourself if Ted Danson, roasting in blackface hs main squeeze, Whoopi Goldberg, was, like Jesse Helms, just whistling "Dixie."
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Author:Emerson, Ken
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 22, 1993
Words:1961
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