Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

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My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

(Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on coon songs quotes Ernest Hogan making the interesting point that songs based on racial stereotypes were the means by which black musics were first accepted into wider culture.)

But there are also all kind of anachronistic references. Jones himself points out that the paddle steamers that keeping appearing on the geographically-challenged rivers are all from a previous generation. And the main literary source upon which he bases his own anatomy of Southern character types in Chapter 3 comes from 1860.

Many of the main images used to idealise the South, though, are so generic as to be timeless. Natural phenomena (moonlight, magnolias, rivers, whipporwhills) are useful elements for building a myth precisely because not only do they evoke a pre-lapsarian pastoral idyll, but they essentially exist outside history. Natural cycles continue even while they’re paving over paradise.

So, whilst Jones could well make a good case that the mythic South of Tin Pan Alley wasn’t a specifically historical South, I don’t think he can conclude that it is therefore a contemporary one. Even where the songs’ point is to contrast the hustle of the city with the yearned-for simplicity of home, the act of returning is about the rejection of modernity.

The idealised South that emerges for me from the song lyrics he quotes so extensively is one that exists not at any one historical moment, but out of time. The combination of the anachronistic and the generic, along with the almost ritualistic repetition of a limited set of elements, create a never-never land saleable to southern and northern audiences alike.

So, given the ambiguity of the evidence, why does Jones advance his thesis so assertively? He seems to be particularly keen to refute the contention of an earlier book, Karen Cox’s Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (2011) that associated the romanticised South of early 20th-century popular culture with the post-civil war mythology of the Lost Cause. (I’ve not read Cox’s work, though one of the things I have come away with from this is the belief that I probably should.)

Jones takes Cox to task quite trenchantly about relatively minor details throughout his book, which partly feels like an attempt to carve out space for his own work within their overlapping fields. Given the publication timings, I could well imagine that his work was well under way when Cox’s book came out, and it is easy to sympathise with the fear that someone else’s work has made a lot of your own efforts look secondary or redundant.

But, still, his general point that Cox’s work treats popular music only briefly would still provide adequate rationale for his own more extended work. His concern seems more specifically to suggest that Tin Pan Alley’s treatment of Dixie is significantly different from the rest of popular culture. ‘She seriously errs,’ he claims, ‘when trying to lump Tin Pan Alley in with the other media she lists’ (p. 232).

Now, popular song of the early 20th century was fully integrated into these other types of media, as indeed Jones has shown when he cites the films and shows in which songs appeared. So why does he try so strenuously to detach this one medium from its wider intertext?

My guess is that the answer lies in his treatment of race, which, as I discussed last time is naïve to the point of disingenuous. In the context of the wider literature of Dixie mythology – not just Cox’s work, but also Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South - it would be hard to make a case that Dixie nostalgia isn’t intimately bound up with the project of white supremacy. Just as Jones attempts to argue that the ‘happy darkie’ trope in popular song isn’t a derogatory stereotype, his attempt to separate popular song from wider narratives seems to be trying to distance Tin Pan Alley from the racist underbelly to the idealised myth.

This urge is another symptom of the lapses of critical distance I commented on in my last post. It is very easy, as a scholar of music (even as a scholar of lyrics who clearly listens to a lot of music) to become overly identified with your subject matter. That, in many ways, is why music is so culturally powerful – we sing along in our hearts even to things our minds disagree with. It feels like Jones has so fallen in love with the Great American Songbook that he can’t bring himself to acknowledge the extent to which this a significant portion of this repertory participated in oppressive cultural narratives. The book might more accurately have been titled, Rehabilitating Dixie, except that it does not succeed in its attempt to do so.

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