NPR

The Anthemic Allure Of 'Dixie,' An Enduring Confederate Monument

Despite its origins in the popular music of the North, the song became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War and still endures as a divisive symbol in modern America.
The 2nd South Carolina String Band in July, onstage in the main tent of the annual reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Source: Bilal Qureshi for NPR

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


When my Pakistani immigrant parents chose Richmond, Va. as our American hometown, they didn't realize the city had a pre-existing condition: nostalgia for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Growing up, the ghosts of the Old South were everywhere — rebel flags waving from pickup trucks, monuments along the city's main avenue. More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the city is still coming to terms with its past, and an inextinguishable part of that past is the song "Dixie."

O, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land

" 'Dixie' is born nostalgic. If you think about what the lyrics say, it's something that's already been lost," Civil War historian and fellow Richmonder Ed Ayers explains. "So it's sort of mingled with this political longing of losing the ill-fated rebellion against the United States."

Ayers has been at the forefront of Richmond's reckoning with its past: This, who presided over the Confederate States of America from Richmond for four years. After the South lost the war, Davis sought to reframe his nation's demise as an honorable defeat; as Ayers explains, "His great cause became denying that slavery was the center of the Civil War. This is the engine that kept running long after the war."

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