Breaking the Myth
ANDERSON COOPER Protesters, rioters, domestic terrorists, insurrectionists. [END CLIP]
WOLF BLITZER I want to call them rioters or mobsters. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As cable news hosts watched the chaos in the capital, they struggled to describe what they saw. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. Also on this week's show, can a nation ever really move past...its past?
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW When people say we're better than this? I've and wondering, what history have you not read about American society?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, how the myth of the Confederate lost cause has been fought over in a song written by a Canadian.
JACK HAMILTON Songs never really belong entirely to the person who writes them. There's always this very complex negotiation between the audience and the composer.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up, after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. A shocking week and a shocking presidency have finally come to an end. But there is shock and there is surprise and come on, we're not warned by Trump himself? Even at the very dawn of this administration?
TRUMP We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Many such decrees issued forth, often in the form of unlawful executive orders, unlawful because no president may flout federal statute or the Constitution merely by declaring his will. That he was unaware or indifferent to those relatively few constraints on presidential power was clear even earlier in his July 2016 acceptance speech for the Republican nomination.
TRUMP Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And thus, he envisioned his presidency with the ‘see no evil’ backing of Republicans in Congress, but ultimately, one might say at long last, the courts and the majority of voters and even finally, his congressional lapdogs tired of it. Trump was not vanquished by any deep state or socialist agenda or rigged voting machines or Antifa or even fake news. He and he alone was done in, ironically enough, by his very own weapon of mass obstruction: fear. Not fear of the various others whom he has vilified as threats to our democracy, but fear of what his own demagoguery now has unleashed.
TRUMP All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by a bold and radical left Democrats, which is what they're doing and stolen by the fake news media. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was Wednesday morning.
TRUMP We will never give up. We will never concede it doesn't happen. You don't concede when these steps, while our country has had enough, we will not take it anymore. And that's what this is all about. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he sent the followers he'd been summoning for weeks down Pennsylvania Avenue with a final blast of invigorating bitterness.
TRUMP But just remember this. You're stronger, you're smarter, you've got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you're the real people. You're the people that built this nation. [END CLIP]
RIOTER The government did this to us. We were normal, good, law abiding citizens. And you guys did this to us. We want our country back. We are protesting for our freedom right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Cable news hosts struggled over what to call them.
WOLF BLITZER Yeah, a lot of these I don't want to call them protesters anymore. I want to call them rioters or mobsters. They are--they're going to be arrested. They have video of these rioters, these mobsters. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wolf, I don't think that means what you think it means.
DON LEMON Domestic terrorists, insurrectionists. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Don Lemon started to zero in while Anderson Cooper went with the whole set.
ANDERSON COOPER Why were protesters, rioters, insurrectionists domestic terrorists able to penetrate the Capitol like this? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fox's Bret Baier thought it out.
BAIER We said protesters earlier, but that's not accurate for the folks who went inside and did damage inside the Capitol. Those are extremists. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On this, standing with Joe Biden.
BIDEN This is not dissent, it's disorder. It's chaos. It borders on sedition. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was all this intended to inspire terror or to obstruct – even overthrow the government, or was it just a protest gone off the rails? We know some of the actors, white nationalists, QAnon believers and dead enders seen at other showdowns. We also know there's no evidence pointing to Antifa. We know, too, that much of the capital police were overwhelmed by the speed of the attack and the distribution of the breach points evidence of some coordination and training. So it wasn't just a mob. And that's why the choice of words is so crucial. Unless we can describe it, we won't be ready next time. And there is a next time, January 17th, noon at the Washington Memorial, and at every state capital. These people talk to each other online. Meanwhile, the chief of the Capitol Police and House and Senate sergeant at arms resigned under pressure for what may be rank incompetence or worse. The newly minted acting secretary of defense denied resources requested by the mayor of Washington despite ample warning of mayhem. And as lawmakers cowered behind barricades after the breach, he reportedly went AWOL for at least 90 minutes while Maryland's governor was trying to get him on the phone for authorization to send in reinforcements. It's a puzzle missing many pieces, but the picture so far isn't good.
CALLER I just have one question. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE C-SPAN doesn't screen its calls, so we can't know if this caller is authentic.
CALLER I want to know if my president lied to me today and if he did – I want him to tell me, and more importantly, I want him to tell the family of the woman that got shot and killed today. I voted for him [CHOKES UP] I voted for him. I'm sorry. [END CLIP]
ROMNEY No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters, particularly when the president will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we could show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mitt Romney earned himself a bipartisan round of applause on the Senate floor because he hit on the central dilemma and served up a high minded illusion of a solution. If only it were so simple. We can't just stem the flow of lies. We also have to send truth flooding over innumerable dams, and we just haven't been able to do it. We still do have the ability, though, to hold lawbreakers accountable, if we choose. Maybe that's how we start – consequences, at least for law breaking lies. From the bottom to the very top. Cuff him and take him downtown.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the romance and revisionism in the lost cause.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. What did we see in Wednesday's rampage? We saw grievous indignation. We saw seething, vengeful people who believe that something was stolen from them. And again and again, we saw the Confederate battle flag.
NEWS REPORT The stain of the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building. That image projected across the world. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT In the Capitol building, never got there back in the eighteen hundreds. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The hangman's noose on the western front of the Capitol, a hangman's noose. [END CLIP}
AMY GOODMAN President Donald Trump has embarked on a lost cause, akin to that embraced by Southerners after the Confederacy was crushed. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Democracy Now's Amy Goodman on her podcast, drawing a parallel that has also been seized upon by The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone and others. That we have been here before. In the narrative of the former Confederacy that successfully reframed a war for slavery into a noble defense of sovereignty and the southern way of life. Caroline Janney is a historian of the Civil War at the University of Virginia. She's tracked the evolution of lost cause -- a mythology, a process, she says, that began with the beatification of dead rebels.
CAROLINE JANNEY Cemeteries were the place that we first see the utterances of what came to be known as the lost cause. And in some ways, this makes perfect sense. Of course, these people were grieving for their husbands and fathers and sons, and yet they used those opportunities to have speeches that condemned reconstruction, that condemned emancipation, that talked about the horrible things that were going to follow in the wake of emancipation and union victory, and they began casting these things into stone.
BOB GARFIELD By what process did the funereal hagiography morph into the full blown lost cause mythology that persists to this day?
CAROLINE JANNEY By the time we get to the 1880s, 1890s, these monuments are going up. We also have the memoirs, the the diaries that are being published by former Confederates, explaining and justifying the slaveholding south, harkening back to, in their minds, a golden era of race relations under slavery. They spout the myth that African-Americans were content and happy in slavery. We also see this in children's textbooks. The United Daughters of the Confederacy in particular, wage a war in the classrooms to make sure that children are learning that the war was not about slavery, that it was about states rights. All of those things about the so-called faithful slave, the heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That happens in classrooms as much as it happens in monumentation. And so several generations of young schoolchildren come of age hearing these stories. It's no wonder that we end up with the likes of people like Strom Thurmond. They're raised on the stories of the lost cause.
BOB GARFIELD And thence into conventional wisdom and even popular culture like Hollywood?
CAROLINE JANNEY Absolutely. So we see this certainly in Birth of a Nation which premiered in 1915, the movie itself was a cinematic masterpiece in terms of the technology, but the story that it told was one of white northerners and white southerners coming together to defeat the so-called black beast rapist and all those horrible things that had been unleashed by reconstruction and by union policies of emancipation and giving African-American men the right to vote. So we see that take to the silver screen. But equally as powerful, in 1939, we have gone with the Wind, which is absolutely an embodiment of the lost cause.
SCARLETT As God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this. And when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. [END CLIP]
CAROLINE JANNEY All of those images that we have of fair Southern Belles and the faithful slave Mammy encapsulates that image of loyal, faithful African-Americans who knew their place, who didn't challenge the strictures of segregation.
MAMMY Oh, now Scarlett, you come on and be good and eat just a little.
SCARLETT No! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They weren't chattel, they were members of the family.
CAROLINE JANNEY Absolutely, and what's really important to remember is that this is something that is imbibed by the entire nation. And so we start seeing white northerners who, a generation before had very much rejected the lost cause. By the time we get to Margaret Mitchell's version of the Confederacy, we see white Americans as a whole, drinking this in and the lost cause becomes national. In response, in many ways to the civil rights movement, we start to see that Confederate banner being used in more popular ways. We see it waved at football games at a University of Mississippi and Alabama. We see the University of Mississippi having Colonel Reb as its mascot. People will cast it off as just a symbol, but it's an incredibly powerful symbol that is pulled out for these specific social, cultural and political reasons of resisting desegregation, of resisting enfranchisement.
BOB GARFIELD And beneath that banner, Jim Crow, the KKK, voter suppression and lynchings.
CAROLINE JANNEY Right, the Klan in particular by the time we get to the 1950s and 1960s, they are using the Confederate battle flag as their emblem.
BOB GARFIELD What are the parallels between the Stop the Steal narrative and the myth of the Confederacy?
CAROLINE JANNEY The cause of voter fraud that it was an illegitimate victory is not unlike what we see former confederates saying when they talk about that they could have never won against insurmountable union forces. We start to see that same language from Trump and his followers.
TRUMP There's never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us. From me, from you, from our country.
CAROLINE JANNEY There was no way we could have won because the odds were stacked against us.
BOB GARFIELD But it's also the sense of victimization and martyrdom. In this case, if we are to believe Trump and his MAGA followers at the hands of mythical radical socialists: the deep state, antifa, anti-Christians and so on. It all rings so familiar.
CAROLINE JANNEY It does. This is much of the same language, or at least the same ways in which former confederates were talking about abolitionists, that they were the ones who were this far radical group that had instigated and they were overturning all of the deeply held values of American society. And so it's the people on the far left that are seen as the real threat to American democracy, who are then demonized by those who have been defeated.
BOB GARFIELD OK, now on this show, journalist and fellow scholar Corey Robin has warned of 'historovox', a tendency to launder journalistic hot takes through history, resulting too often in reductive comparisons and ultimately the misunderstanding of the present. Now, we've been speaking of parallels between the lost cause and Trumpian in mythology, but you, too, have some words of caution.
CAROLINE JANNEY Certainly when I'm talking about this lost cause that Trump is spouting, it's not the same as the Confederates lost cause. No. There are some of the same symbols and there is certainly a lot of the same strategy and some of the same language that's being used, but we do have to be very careful. I think we need to use the past to to help us understand how and why things played out as they do, but it is absolutely not only dangerous, but it's dishonest to try to make them cookie cutter. One of the really important distinctions to point out here is that Confederates knew they lost and they were trying to justify that defeat. They justified it in all sorts of distorted ways that are continuing to have tremendous effects on our our lived experience today, but there's a difference between accepting defeat and not accepting defeat. So that's where this breaks down a great deal.
BOB GARFIELD Fair enough. I should say, though, that in our meetings at On the Media, we sometimes get a little historovox-y. And in this case, we spent a lot of time discussing the notion of uncanny parallels and we considered a different way of framing it, not parallel lines, but perhaps the contemporary extension of the existing lost cause narrative. The same line rooted in white supremacy, grievance and oppression, not lost cause redux, but lost cause made over. Do you buy that?
CAROLINE JANNEY I'm not sure I do, because the lost cause grew out of what white Southerners who supported the Confederacy believed was a legitimate attempt at Confederate nationhood. It grew out of 200 years plus of chattel slavery, a system that's led to real set of ideologies and beliefs. And I'm not so certain that we have that same crystallization in what is going on now with Trump supporters and Trumpism. There is a way in which the past is being reimagined for purposes of political gains and social and cultural gains, but I'm not sure that this is a direct growth out of the Confederate lost cause.
BOB GARFIELD Well, I certainly wouldn't want to trivialize slavery by making glib comparisons, but is not white supremacy itself a, you know, a fully comparable ideology that joins these two periods of history?
CAROLINE JANNEY It is, but white supremacy doesn't just come from the Confederacy. I'm not saying Confederates weren't white supremacists. Please don't get me wrong there. But America as a whole was built on a belief in white supremacy. It's a national phenomena, and I think we need to take a more holistic approach of understanding that this small C conservative defense of whites, often male prerogative, comes from a much larger and deeper well than just the four years that constituted the Confederacy.
BOB GARFIELD Carrie, thank you.
CAROLINE JANNEY Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Caroline Janney is a professor of history at the University of Virginia.
BOB GARFIELD If historic parallels about white resentment and violence have some use in understanding Trumpism and other expressions of white supremacy, they may also help us to figure out what to do or not to do next. For instance, Republican Senator Ted Cruz thinks there are lessons in the contested election of 1876 when Southern Democrats, then the party of slavery, alleged fraud in the election of Rutherford B.. Hayes, Hayes and his Republican Party, however, alleged massive voter suppression of Southern blacks. And so Cruz told his Senate colleagues Wednesday night in his attempt to delay certification of Biden's election victory. Why not do what his 19th century predecessors did?
[CLIP] TED CRUZ This Congress appointed an electoral commission to examine claims of voter fraud. Five House members, five senators, five Supreme Court justices examined the evidence and rendered a judgment. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They sure did. But nobody in Congress paid the slightest bit of attention, resulting in a slapdash compromise on the advent of inauguration in which Southern senators withdrew their electoral objections so long as Hayes withdrew federal troops from the former slave states. The compromise of 1877 meant Hayes got his presidency and the old South regained the freedom to oppress black Americans without federal interference. White Southerners called it redemption, to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum. It was a catastrophe of appeasement end an object lesson in the politics of reconciliation.
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW To some extent, there might be vague awareness that the disputed election ended reconstruction, but I think people don't have a sense of what that means. It meant that without federal troops supporting the legitimately elected governments of these southern states, that white terrorism - counter-democratic impulses were going to rule the day. What that meant was countless people being killed in political violence. There were coups across the south. This is part of our history. When people say we're better than this I'm often wondering: so what history have you not read?
BOB GARFIELD So comes now the question with history as our guide, what to do about our current divide? As recently as three weeks ago, amid Stop the Steal violence across the country, the president-elect pledged to foster reconciliation.
BIDEN And now it's time to turn the page, as we've done throughout our history. To unite, to heal. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What you wrote is, quote, Biden's unrequited national unity overtures to the Trump coalition of anti unionists are indeed a sad echo of ghastly overtures from our nation's past. A long running dystopian fantasy that tens of millions are willing to fight over. Right impulse, wrong strategy?
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW Oh, I would say wrong strategy and wrong impulse. I think the impulse comes from the idea that there is a legitimate grievance here, and the only problem is the tactics that are used to express that grievance. The reconciliation between the north and the south after the treasonous acts of the Confederacy. Declaring war, effectively, against the United States was at the end of the day, tapped down to men of honor defending what they believe to be their way of life. So in that, reconciliation is a no harm, no foul judgment on the most deadly war to ever consume the United States. And that instinct to try to put the family back together again, those African-Americans who sacrificed everything to support the union were thrown under the bus. What's so worrisome to students of that history right now is that we are seeing the same kind of treasonous actions being framed as just a difference of opinion that we can kind of work out by negotiating. Well, you can not negotiate with white supremacy. White supremacy has got to be dealt with directly without excuse, without compromise. And that, frankly, given the fact that President Biden now has a Democratic Congress because of African-American voters, because of this history. So it would be irony indeed at the end of the day, if he negotiated the very terms of possibility that put him in the position that he's currently in.
BOB GARFIELD You don't think Kumbaya, reach across the aisle, reach across the barricades approach is likely to serve this nation very well?
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW No more than I thought that a Kumbaya moment would have been the solution to the Confederacy firing on Fort Sumter. Some things are non-negotiable in a democratic republic. The idea that there are some people and some rights and some interests that are more important than others based just on who they are, is an idea that was repudiated by the 13th and the 14th and the 15th Amendment. Unfortunately, that repudiation had an expiration date on it. It was 1876 and we are now living in its aftermath.
BOB GARFIELD Historian Caroline Janney, who we spoke to earlier, was cautious to draw a distinction between the original lost cause and Trump's use of the same symbols and tactics. She noted, for example, that the white nationalism undergirding the original lost cause myth, has a regional identity. It was a thing of the South. The white nationalism of Stop the Steal is more amorphous. Is there a point at which the lost cause analogy fails?
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW At a certain point, Lost Cause-ism did become more of a national understanding with the framing of reconstruction as having been a tremendous failure because it embraced the idea of multiracial democracy. That became an idea that the North agreed to as much as the South as a cause of disorder, as a reason to be worried about allowing black people in particular to exercise power when they are not, quote unquote ready for it. So I think actually one of the things that has to be corrected is the idea that this was just a conceit of the South. This was something that was affirmed and facilitated by the North and eventually by many political elites. That's the legacy, the fact that there wasn't contestation about these ideas. That's what's so frightening about this moment.
BOB GARFIELD I noticed that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and longtime Trump enabler, condemned Wednesday's events as, quote, a failed insurrection. But, you know, another possibility is that it wasn't a failed insurrection, that it will live on as a symbol of patriotic heroism. If you had to guess -- day of reckoning?
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW Not a day of reckoning at all. There is this concept in constitutional law about how the fruit of the poisonous tree should not be allowed to shape legal outcomes. I would say, do we apply the fruit of the poisonous tree to Mitch McConnell and to the Republicans? Are they making any kind of promise to no longer eat from said poisonous tree? That would be a reckoning. If there is an awareness that we played with fire and it has singed our republic. So we are going to have to tap the fire down and out. Which would mean we will no longer allow the party to use these illegitimate grievances to generate the kind of energies that says if we can't rule the republic, we're going to burn it down. Are they willing to repudiate and no longer use this dangerous weapon in politics? That, to me, would be a reckoning. That, to me would be the only condition upon which it would make sense to me to think that there is a possibility of reaching across shaking hands and agreeing that we will no longer go down this path. I don't see that happening right now.
BOB GARFIELD As we're talking about Biden and his impulse, and you know more about this history than I do, but it does sound like just a revisiting of the Fugitive Slave Act, which Abraham Lincoln countenanced in order to appease the South or the Dred Scott decision that historically calamitous Supreme Court decision. Neither of which prevented, let's say, the civil war.
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW Yes. So you can't see me. My head is nodding furiously. The Dred Scott opinion was basically a southern dream come true. We don't have to worry about the courts intervening at all in slavery because Dred Scott decided that black people will never be citizens of the United States. That was a gift to the South. That wasn't enough to appease them. The Fugitive Slave Act was a gift to the South - and talk about state rights. This was an act that basically said free states really had no authority to protect their citizens from being captured -- whether slave or free and taken to the south and sold. And that still was not enough. I think what we have to look at is what allowed the South to believe that notwithstanding all of these efforts to appease them, they had the right to open fire on the United States, and secede. That underlying dynamic is a dynamic that we need to understand very well before we move into another moment of appeasement, because that appeasement probably only encourages more of this treasonous kind of behavior, than taps it down.
BOB GARFIELD Kimberlé, thank you so much.
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is co-founder and executive director of the African-American Policy Forum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, strike up the band.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When it comes to art identified with the lost cause of the Confederacy, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band, maybe pop culture's most celebrated and misunderstood contribution.
[tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
THE BAND [SINGING] Virgil Kane is the name, and I served on the Danville train, 'till Stoneman's cavalry came and pulled up the tracks again.
In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive. By May the 10th, Richmond had fell, It's a time I remember, oh so well.
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing, the night they drove old Dixie down. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The song is Rock and Roll canon, listed as one of the best of all time by Time magazine and Rolling Stone, despite its charged subject matter.
THE BAND Back with my wife in Tennessee. When one day she called to me. "Virgil, quick come see, There goes Robert E. Lee! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On paper, these verses read as if lifted from the Lost Cause playbook, a nostalgic retelling of the end of the civil war, seen through the eyes of a downtrodden Southern farmer laden with grief but not a trace of white supremacy.
But the song is not what it seems, or at least what it seemed when it was first loosed upon the world. The band's lead guitarist, Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, hadn't logged much time in the South when he penned "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1969. But in the ensuing decades, some have claimed it as a neo-confederate anthem.
EARLY JAMES Do want to say before we start the song was kind of a scary song to play. And today's political climate, I guess. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Early James, a 27 year old Alabama-born country musician, speaking before performing at an annual star studded tribute concert for the Band, livestreamed in August.
EARLY JAMES I felt the need to revise somewhere to make it a little more palatable, and I hope we piss off the right people by changing those words. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Inspired by this summer's racial reckoning, James sang about toppling Confederate monuments. And here's how he recast the chorus to "The Night We Drove Old Dixie Down".
[to the tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
EARLY JAMES [SINGING] Time to remember, time to bid farewell [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE He's sang: "tonight we drive old dixie down". In Slate, pop critic Jack Hamilton wrote about the mixed messages in a song that is more and also less than it seems.
JACK HAMILTON Thanks so much for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so the song came out in the fall of '69. That was a big time for folky, rootsy, bluesy type music. Creedence Clearwater Revival released Proud Mary and Bad Moon Rising and Born on the Bayou that same year. You know, maybe it was an effort to kind of grok more, quote, authentic life experience than could be had in the suburbs.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I think that that's an accurate way of putting it. Woodstock is 1969, Altamont is at the end of 1969, and there is an idea in that kind of high sixties moment of popular music as a way back into a sort of authenticity. And certainly a group like The Band, even though they were mostly Canadian, were very, very interested in the roots of American music and this kind of mythic idea of the American past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which explains their association with Bob Dylan, who is on the same journey.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, The Band really come to prominence as the backup band for Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s. And certainly Dylan himself is very interested in these ideas of American history and sort of mythic Americana.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's also talk about what was going on politically. In '69, Washington, D.C., hosted the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 68. President Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, and, you know, a lot of musicians saw their work as having a sort of political resonance. There certainly was a big linkage in this era of the popular music of the day as being a soundtrack to certain activist movements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Joan Baez covered the song in 1971.
JOAN BAEZ [SINGING] Like my father before me, I'm a working man. and like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand. Well, he was just 18, proud and brave, but a yankee laid him in his grave [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm guessing that she didn't see the song is mourning the Confederacy, but as an expression of class consciousness and as you note in your piece, perhaps a protest against the conscription of poor and marginalized young men into fighting a war, the Vietnam War, that affluent people could get out of.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, Joan Baez, obviously someone who is iconically associated with various protest movements of the 1960s, both the civil rights movement and also the anti-war movement. I do think that Baez probably heard in the song the idea of a young man being conscripted into this war machine and the devastation that is wrought by that. The civil war in American history is the first real modern war that America fights. And one of the aspects of that is its class ramifications and that the civil war was famously referred to by many people who fought in it as a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. You could buy your way out of military service if you were an upper class person in the 19th century - on both sides, I believe. And this is something that absolutely comes up in the Vietnam era. We could name many prominent United States politicians who got out of serving in Vietnam because they were basically connected. So I think that "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in the tradition of kind of fictions of the Confederacy is drastically different than something like Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind, which are coming out of a very different historical moment that are sort of putting the mythology of the Confederacy to a different use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That said, you think "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is kind of a stupid song?
JACK HAMILTON You know, I don't know that, I'd go so far as stupid. I mean, I love the band. They are one of my favorite artists of all time, and I think that the performance of it is just exquisite, like so many band performances are. You know, it is beautiful musicianship. Levon Helm, who sings the lead vocal, is just a gorgeous singer. It gives a really great performance. But I do think the song has become a bit overrated. It has a lot of hallmarks of overwrought historical fiction. It's got a lot of cloying specificity in terms of, you know, it almost reads like somebody who is has a kind of encyclopædia deep level of civil war knowledge, which I think is true of Robbie Robertson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think there may be a generational issue here. I don't think that those of us who hummed along – was 13 or 14 when it came out – I was a junior high school protester and I picketed for the rights of Mexican immigrant laborers. I don't think we saw the civil war back then as living history the way that we do now.
JACK HAMILTON I think that that's true, and I think our kind of collective memory and our collective interpretation of the events of the civil war in 2020, or 2021 is drastically different than where it was in 1969. And that has to do with a sea change in the sort of historiography of the civil war that had already started happening in the in the 1960s, but hadn't really trickled its way into popular consciousness yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that it may have something to do with the fact that African-Americans didn't have access to what was the quote unquote, mainstream cultural conversation and didn't have the means to influence it?
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I think that that's absolutely true. By the mid 20th century, telling the history of the civil war and its aftermath had become really the province of a kind of cadre of Southern white historians who were very, very invested in the lost cause narrative in the idea that reconstruction had been a failure, reinvigoration of the sort of myth of Confederate virtue. And, you know, all of the things that comes along with the lost cause. And, you know, there had been critiques of this. I mean, one of the most famous is in 1935, W.E.B Du Bois published a massive book called Black Reconstruction in America. One of the most famous formulations he puts forward is this idea that the function of white supremacy is to consolidate the power of the ruling class. The ruling class can forge alliances with the white working class that would have normally been outside of the white working class, particular class interests that basically prohibited solidarity between black and white workers. This is now one of the most influential books of American history probably ever written. But at the time, Du Bois was seen as a radical, someone who was not in the club of the people who were tasked with telling the history of the Civil War. So it takes decades for Du Bois's work to really got a foothold in academic civil war historiography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's assume that the Canadian lead guitarist of the band and Robbie Robertson probably hadn't read W.E.B. Du Bois.
JACK HAMILTON Probably not. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE His character is Virgil Kane. He's poor. His brother was killed in the war. He chops wood and to make a living. And the song itself has a dirge like Quality. You quote Ta-Nehisi Coates saying that the song is just Pharaoh singing the blues.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I love that. I love that line from some Coates. And it's actually and this is something I would offer up kind of in praise or defense of the song. I think the song musically is actually extremely complex and nuanced. You know, you mentioned that it does have these dirge like qualities to it. The chorus, on the other hand, is entirely major key.
THE BAND [SINGING] The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing. The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have this imagery of bells ringing and people singing like these are not images that we necessarily entirely equate with mourning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The bells were ringing and the people were singing, arguably because Dixie was defeated!
JACK HAMILTON Right -- yeah!
BROOKE GLADSTONE Virgil Kane suffered, but what he describes could be seen as a major chord event in a very dirge like episode of American History.
JACK HAMILTON Are these voices singing recently liberated, formerly enslaved people? There's a lot of dimensions that you could potentially pull out of this song. I don't think it's a neo-Confederate song at all. And I mean, I do think that there's a population of people who hear it that way. And I think that that's a mishearing of the song. But songs never really belong entirely to the person who writes them or the person who performs them. There's always this very complex negotiation between, you know, audience and and composer and performer. Rolling Stone's interview with Early James after his revision of the song, his rewriting of it. He talks about that, you know, about how growing up in Alabama that this song was heard unambiguously as an anthem of, you know, neo-Confederate sentiment and lost cause celebration. Is that entirely Robbie Robertson's fault? Absolutely not. He's only got so much agency over how people hear it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess that's an argument for staying in your lane?
JACK HAMILTON No, I don't think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Robbie Robertson described on Sirius Radio in an interview how he came to write the song.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON went from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta. It was bam, you would go to the restroom and one said colored and one said white. It was crazy. Now, while I was there, Levon took me over to meet his parents and his father, and he was talking about his growing up and being a cotton farmer that after the civil war and everything, they had to change and they had to accommodate these kind of things. And he said to me, I'll tell you right now, the south is going to rise again. And I got chills through me. And so years later, I'm sitting down at the piano and something creeped out of me. And it was a movie about a Southern family in the Civil War from their side. That story of that family trying to write a song that I thought Levon could good sing better than anybody in the world.
JACK HAMILTON Which Levon does, you know -- Absolutely.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON That's all it was. [END CLIP]
JACK HAMILTON When a song becomes this popular and this well known, it loses a sense of, you know, strict ownership, I think, and it becomes something that can be repurposed. I mean, the Early James example is another example of that. Someone taking that song and rewriting it and, you know, repurposing it for a different context.
[tune of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" Plays]
EARLY JAMES [SINGING] Like my father before me, who I never understand. Unlike the others below me who took a rebel stand. Depraved and tried to enslave, I think its time to lay a head in its grave. I swear by the earth beneath my feet, monument won't stand no matter how much concrete [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After reading your piece, I was really primed for the Early James version, but I like songs with unreliable narrators. I think that's why I'm such a fan of Randy Newman, you know?
JACK HAMILTON Right. The first line of the song is Virgil Kane is the name. You know, we're made very aware that this is a fictional character. You do lose that aspect certainly in the Early James version. And yet at the same time, I think there's a reason that he chooses to kind of sacrifice that, which is the fact that I think that in his experience, this is a song where that aspect, the idea that this is, you know, either an unreliable narrator or an imperfect narrator has been lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is lost.
JACK HAMILTON Yes, exactly. You know, and it's become that this guy is a hero, which is not what I think Robbie Robertson intended.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we are in a time of heightened consciousness about the impact of history and the likely creation of a new lost cause myth about a stolen election. And I just wonder, does a story about a Confederate grunt have a place among us anymore or is it more than that?
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, I mean, that's a great question. The context of this song is the Vietnam War, using the metaphor of this one Confederate soldier and his experience to make a statement about sort of war more broadly in the Vietnam War, specifically. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is written over 100 years after the surrender at Appomattox. It's written by a Canadian guy – like it's just so far removed in many ways. So, you know, the question then sort of becomes like, is there going to be, you know, if there is something analogous to the lost cause with Trump, you know, what's that going to look like a hundred years from now down the line? Are people still going to be making art that is, you know, referencing it or somehow steeped in it? I hope not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
JACK HAMILTON Yeah, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jack Hamilton is Slate's pop critic, associate professor of American and Media Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll in the Racial Imagination.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. And our show was edited...by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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