Today I woke up thinking about last night’s concert. One tiny bit in particular was stuck in my brain, playing on a loop. One of the choruses sang a medley of American folk songs called “Country Dances.” Deep into it, buried among harmless things such as “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and “Buffalo Gals,” I was surprised to hear: “Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland,” a relatively harmless snippet of “Dixie.”
I guess I don’t think of “Dixie” as a folk song, but I also guess that that’s a mistake on my part. Some inside part of me bristles at hearing it in the middle of a classical music performance, sung by a chorus of college students, validated by a conductor in tails. A quick review of the lyrics forced me to admit that they really are harmless, but my automatic reaction persisted. And worse — thinking so much about the song put it in my head all day long! Every thought-pause was filled with it. Not ideal.
But then I remembered this story and had to smile:
About a thousand years ago (when I was 20), I went to London. I was traveling with my friend Eva, and my mother had arranged for us to stay at the home of a man whose daughter she worked with. He lived in a pretty suburb of London and had a big old house that he was rattling around in mostly alone. Eva and I were more than happy to have free lodgings complete with a housekeeper and a cook.
The housekeeper, in my memory, was a very tall, very buxom, very blond woman with a big voice and laugh. She was helpful with mass transit directions and ideas for how to spend our time. As we prepared to leave for our first day out of the house, she made a big show of introducing us to the doorbell. It was a crazy doorbell, a really large contraption that played music when you rang and had a selection of something like 50 songs to choose from. Eva and I read through the list and set it for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” … and when we got back to the house that night, it was — yes, of course — playing “Dixie.”
We thought that was weird, but we reset it for “Twinkle Twinkle” and went on with our evening. Same thing happened the next day. And the day after that. We set the bell for another song, thinking maybe there was something wrong with “Twinkle Twinkle.” Same story. We got back to the house that night, rang the bell and heard the tinny, anonymous wish to be in the land of cotton.
This went on for several days. Finally, the housekeeper noticed us messing with the bell.
“I think it’s broken,” she said, waving us away. “I keep setting it to play “Dixie,” and it keeps changing the song.”
Yeah. We all had a laugh when we realized what had been happening, but I asked why she’d been setting it for that song in particular. She looked truly surprised by my question.
“I wanted you to feel at home!”
Dixie. It doesn’t go away, doesn’t get lost, keeps circling back.
And then I remembered the amazing short story by Percival Everett called “The Appropriation of Cultures.” It’s a great story. In it, Everett pushes us to take a different look at the song. (You can hear it read wonderfully on NPR’s Selected Shorts. It’s truly fabulous.)
Hearing that bit of “Dixie” last night was a push for me, a reminder that — as with all things — I need to stop looking away and unpack my own reaction.
You can read the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.