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Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 3-7

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Front Porch


It's possible to argue that traditional southern identities were all invented by aggressive regional nostalgia. The very title of Gone with the Wind speaks volumes about its message. And think about "Dixie," the once-more embattled marching song that has cheered Confederate soldiers, high school football teams, segregationist demonstrators, and lovers of rousing tunes generally. The singer is actually not in the land of cotton, but he wants to be. And all because of the old times there. It's been seriously suggested that "Dixie" was actually composed by a family of black musicians, but most authorities point to Dan D. Emmett, a white minstrel show performer of the 1850s. Both accounts agree that the author of "Dixie" actually came from Ohio, which just goes to show how nostalgia can flourish at a certain distance. [End Page 3]

And "Dixie" is just a starting point for southern nostalgia. In recent years, "original intent" has become a popular slogan among certain southern legal scholars, picking up a theme in constitutional interpretation that has been around since the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799. Jefferson Davis re-invoked the basic idea at his inauguration in 1861, when he denied that the Confederacy was a radical innovation and insisted instead that the South was only returning to the original meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. "Old times there" got even more effusive endorsements from the "Lost Cause" generation at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1900, Virginian Thomas Nelson Page remembered that "the social life of the Old South. . . made men noble, gentle, and brave, and women tender and pure and true. . . . It has passed from the earth," he sighed, "but it has left its benignant influence behind it to sweeten and sustain its children." Like the best nostalgic creations, Page's Dixie was gone but not really past, distant but still working hard to influence his present.

In reality, the South has changed a great deal since the days of Dan Emmett, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Nelson Page, often under the leadership of determined native southerners from Henry Grady to Rosa Parks. The pull of the past is hypnotic, however, and still exerts a powerful influence on southerners' conceptions of themselves and their region. And not by accident, for nostalgia is too important to be left to chance. More often than not it's consciously created, recreated, and put to work, just as Page suggested. Several of the articles in this issue of Southern Cultures explore how this has been done. Others look at the issue of southern change, and how southerners have accommodated what is new even as they sometimes prefer to "look away."

Stephen J. Whitfield sets the tone with "Is It True What They Sing About Dixie?," his exploration of the world of mostly Jewish songwriters whose immortal ballads about the Southland originated in the cabins and cotton fields of Tin Pan Alley in early twentieth-century New York. Often born in Eastern Europe and complete strangers to the real South of their own day, artists like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, and scores of their peers turned out American classics like "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Swanee" and "Ol' Man River" by the carload lot. Just like "Dixie," these songs often featured an exiled singer who longed for home, family, and the pleasures of times past, a theme perfectly appropriate to a generation of immigrants and achingly familiar to millions of Americans on the move, but somehow more fitting when crooned in a southern idiom. Back in antebellum days, minstrel show audiences knew that the nostalgic themes of songs like Stephen Foster's "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny" had relevance to the interstate slave trade, which tore millions of African American from their homes and families in the Upper South and sold them down the river to the sugar parishes. By 1922, when Gus Kahn proclaimed that "Nothing [End Page 4] could be finer than to be in Carolina," southern exile had lost its bitterest associations and...


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