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Reinventing Dixie: Book Review

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reinventingdixieIn the light of barbershop’s current debates about the role of Dixie songs in its repertoire, I was interested to hear of a book published a couple of years ago about exactly this corpus of songs. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South sounded exactly like the kind of thing I should be reading!

I have not yet worked out whether I would recommend it in turn, for reasons that I aim to tease out in the next blog post or two (there may be more to talk about than will fit in just one). Overall I’d say it is more informative than explanatory – it told me lots of stuff that I didn’t otherwise know, but the analysis is weak, in places embarrassingly uncritical.

So to start out with what the book does well. John Bush Jones’s basic premise is that the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley were important contributors to the creation and dissemination of the Dixie myth as promulgated in the early years of the 20th century. By examining the detail of lyrics of many of these songs, he aims to fill in a gap left by other treatments of the wider phenomenon, which have tended to focus more on books, films and the like.

And we do get a lot of detail; he quotes extensively from hundreds of songs, as well as giving details of their history on stage, screen and recordings. Indeed, the main reason I am able to argue back against some of his central arguments is because he gives the reader the source material to do so. Some of what I have learned from this book comes from the points Jones makes himself, some from extending those points to other wider applicability based on the evidence he provides, and some from disputing his points, again based on this evidence base.

One of the key points to emerge, for me, was how clichéd and divorced from reality the whole myth was. It’s not just that most of the songs were written by people who had no direct experience of the South, but the sheer repetitiousness of the content, once you pile all the songs up together, displays a limited palette of stereotypical elements constantly recirculating. It’s like having a collection of lego bricks: you can make lots of somewhat different things from them, but they are all clearly from the same basic family of materials. (Or indeed like contest barbershop. Hundreds of songs, 13 chords. Ahem.)

That these elements – moonlight, magnolia, cotton, mammy, banjos, whippoorwills, blue grass, steamboats, peaches – are referenced from other songs (stories, movies) rather than anything like real life is rather nicely illustrated by the geographically challenged Swannee River. Jones cites songs that places it in all kinds of different places: Nashville, Kentucky, Alabama, the Carolinas.

I could wish that Jones had sustained this awareness of artifice throughout his narrative. All too often he starts attributing authentic expression to songwriter or even characters within a song, eliding the emotions the songs were designed to elicit with actual lived experience of its real or virtual originators. (I suspect that not so very many people join me in being interested in both Dixie songs and theories of musical semiotics, but in Nattiez’s terms, he tangles up poietic and aesthesic levels of communication.)

At times this just comes across as an uncritical lapse into the discourse of intentional fallacy. Other times, it produces statements that made me blush on his behalf for their egregious obtuseness:

Although Norman H. Landman’s “Mammy’s Dixie Soldier Boy” is sentimental and didn’t have much popular success, the lyric offers sensitive insights into the black mammy/white child relationship from the mammy’s perspective and is therefore of interest beyond being just another Dixie war song (p. 204).

Um, I don’t think the opinions of any actual black women required to tend white children got very near the writing of this song. Also, the very image we have of the stereotypical mammy was a construction of the early 20th century.

The handling of race throughout is problematic. On one hand Jones presents as quite well-meaning, but there is a wilful naivety in his insistence that the term ‘darkies’ in so many of these lyrics is somehow not racist. This assertion rests on a distinction between coon songs that promulgated more directly caricatured stereotypes, and the more soft-focused picture of happy darkies humming (inevitably ‘soft and low’) in the fields.

This is a bit like saying the ‘Angel in the house’ stereotype isn’t sexist, because it’s nicer than whorish harpies with whom virtuous femininity is contrasted. Positive and negative stereotypes work systemtically as carrot and stick to maintain the status quo of a dominant culture. The myth of POC happy with their lot on the plantations is a direct obstacle to change because it purports change not to be necessary.

This is nearly enough for one post. There is another to come on his central argument about the Dixie myth and its relationship with historical period, plus some thoughts about theoretical frameworks that the discussion would benefit from engaging with.

For now, there is one minor, but repeated irritant throughout the text that I just have to get off my chest. A goodly number of the songs he discusses can be found online, apparently. He doesn’t tell us where, except one passing reference to youtube, and maybe – if youtube is his main source, rather than some of the archived collections of old recordings – the search function is good enough that the songwriter and year info he gives will reliably locate them.

But there really has to be a better way to signal this fact than ending several sentences per page with phrases like, ‘which is on the Internet’, ‘as may be heard on the Internet’, ‘as heard on the Internet’. Not only is it useless for reference purposes, since you’d have to go into the index song titles and then back into the main text to find which songs he had signalled as available, but it makes a horrible reading experience. I started to dread the ends of sentences. If I hadn’t been so fundamentally interested in the subject matter, I’d have given up well before halfway through.

Anyway, more next time….

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