One day back when I was living in Minneapolis, an ice-cream truck came trolling down our tree-lined street. Despite the dearth of children in the neighborhood, the squat beige van came not infrequently, usually tooting something innocuous like “Pop Goes the Weasel” to rally a small crowd. One blistering afternoon it started whistling a different song, no less bouncy but with a tad darker history. Without my wanting it to, the whose first verse played in my memory.
My roommates went bounding down the steps when they heard the tune. They saw the look on my face. “Didn’t you hear the ice cream truck?” they asked.
“Yeah. Didn’t you?”
“What did you mean?”
“Didn’t you recognize the song they were playing?” I hummed. Nothing.
The incident sort of fell out of my mind until a few weeks ago, when two consecutive buses came roaring down the street in front of my DC apartment. After months of construction the street looks a little like some of the harder-hit patches of Dresden after World War II, and there are plenty of metal plates and potholes to crash into. With the buses’ squeaky brakes and clattering mufflers they raised quite a racket. A whole string of car alarms went off in the buses’ wake, like windows exploding. It was a too familiar happening around here, and I was seething over the five-movement symphony-alarm from the grey minivan with the Maryland plates (again!)—when suddenly, beneath it, came rising up the same tinny ice-cream truck song from a decade earlier. No words, just electric synth sound.
Now, my neighborhood in Washington is probably half to two-thirds black and my block at least three-quarters black. (It ain’t Minnesota.) We live about a mile from the White House. And there on 11th St. somebody had set his car alarm to belch out the most noxious song our country’s ever managed to produce. I didn’t exactly expect someone to start the car on fire or tip it over. Gaping out the window, I didn’t even see anyone stop or swivel or even notice. The tune died before I could determine which car.
The reprise didn’t give me the creeps because it was racist chauvinism. Something like the opposite. This was not the musical equivalent to putting a Stars ‘n’ Bars decal on your pickup. I doubt there wasn’t any malice involved at all because I’d guess that, like my innocent, bleeding-heart roommates years before, whoever set the alarm to Dixie had no idea what the song was. They just liked the sickly sweet music.
I don’t consider myself musically literate. My parents were book people. My father listened to classic music albums he ordered from the BBC sometimes, which means I was at least exposed to highbrow music as a youngster, and I took piano and extensive singing lessons. Very little stuck. I think it has more to do with me, with how my head’s gears turn, than lack of exposure. My parents never mentioned art, perhaps literally not once in my childhood. Yet today I can at least converse about painting halfway meaningfully. Live theater I love—yet I’ve probably never made it through a classical music concert without falling asleep, sometimes multiple times. There’s something about music I don’t “get,” and to my shame I’m a musical ignoramus.
But I can remember my mother sitting my ass down one day when I was eleven or twelve and singing “Dixie.” I’d heard it on some moralistic television movie (someone whistled it in a shower scene at a newly integrated boarding school), and I didn’t know what it was. She made sure I wouldn’t have to ask again. She was a kindergarten teacher and had a talent for exaggerated facial expressions, and she cocked her eye and sang it with a maniacal half-smile—“I wish I were in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten!” She sang, we talked about what the song meant, she sang again, deconstructed it once more. She wanted me to absorb the tune so I could absorb what the tune stood for, so that if I ever heard it again I’d recognize that the very act of singing or playing it was, by itself, a nasty little comment.
At least it used to be. Now it’s a ringtone.
Does it make a difference that people were playing “Dixie” without words? There are a few answers to that. Politically, not really. It’s still noxious. Pragmatically, well, Americans aren’t well-versed in history, nor are they trained to remember music without words, so there’s probably some substantial ignorance at play here. Lyrical pop has colonized our musical landscape to about the same degree humans have overrun Earth, and with about as little reverence. There are tundras for jazz and classical music, and some people prefer them, but it’s an awful lot of work just to survive out there. Folk music’s not much different.
Scientifically, it’s a tricky question, too. Neuroscientists studying music on brain scans have seen that in the first microseconds a musical note strums the same areas of the brain that process language. Makes sense. Unlike resolving itself into a nice coherent word, though, a note quivers and spreads out among the neurons, and therein lies its power: Music can touch a lot of “words” at once, creating new associations and cross-linkages. It’s the reason why most music without lyrics means nothing and everything until you hear the title. But music without words is vastly harder to recall and remember at will, too: It touches pure emotion but dissipates quickly, and might not stick. Even I, who can recognize Beethoven’s Ninth no better on the twenty-fifth hearing than the first, can recall with utter clarity dozens of tunes I’ve heard just once—as long as the lyrics were distinctive. My mind “gets” words. And I recognize Dixie because someone made me learn the words. If I didn’t know them, if I’d only ever heard it as a wordless ditty, I’m not sure I could pick it out.
There’s a general assumption that music makes you a better person. Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice suggested that “The man that hath no music in himself / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” I conclude I am ripe for spoils and stratagems, for I have very little inner music. On the other hand, I do know “Dixie,” but even knowing “Dixie” feels vaguely treasonous—I feel I have to explain why I do. Paradoxically, exactly because I know “Dixie” I can never hum or whistle it. It’s largely the people who don’t know the tune by heart, who don’t have it as inner music, who perpetuate it today in little snatches, little flash-burns. The law of unintended consequences seems to be at play. Decent people generally want to keep Dixie from being played and sung publically; it’s hurtful. Decent people have been generally successful. But the less it’s played and sung the more obscure it grows in people’s minds. That means when Dixie does escape into public, as a car alarm or belted out by some brass band down south, most of the people hearing it hear nothing but the aural sensations. And there’s no denying it’s a pretty folk tune—people will enjoy the pure notes. It’s a perfect storm of ignorance.
Right now is a strange moment for “Dixie.” It shouldn’t go away; it’s important history. If nothing else (and there’s a hell of a lot else; but if nothing else) it’s really the only rallying song America (some of America) ever had—the only purely American song you could have walked into a bar singing and been reasonably sure people would pick up the tune and get riled up. Who ever rallied around “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? I thought this maybe had something to do with the South losing the Civil War—the theory being that only the vanquished would bother caring so much about a song. But I recently watched Israeli youth in Jerusalem scream themselves into ecstasy on Israeli Independence Eve by singing Zionist songs. And there’s a YouTube clip circulating right now of the new president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, roaring up a crowd at a rally with an arm-waving rendition of the Zulu fight song “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami.” (Which means, um, “Bring me my machine gun.” [!]) So rally songs clearly aren’t for history’s losers only.
But I confess that leaves me out of ideas for what Dixie means today. Just like music has a certain effect in the brain, twanging multiple notes of meaning without ever quite resolving itself, hearing Dixie resurrected now and then induces in me a strong feeling, but one that never quite settles into a coherent sense of how I should feel. Perhaps rather than avoiding the song, everyone should learn it—then learn why they shouldn’t ever use that knowledge. Or perhaps it’s a sign of progress nowadays that Dixie hurts so little, that it can be a car alarm riff or a toodle for ice cream. Blitheness can be bliss.