Stars Finally Bar the Stars and Bars
How country culture is drawing a Mason-Dixon line between hatred and “heritage.” Dolly Parton, Lady A, The Dixie Chicks, Gone With the Wind, and NASCAR
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I, a person who grew up in downtown Chicago, have been kind of puzzled by the news item that country band Lady Antebellum changed their name to Lady A. (Me: “But we all know what the A stands for…??”)
So, I reached out to Going Downs Rural Correspondent, TV writer Brenden Gallagher. He is my husband, so he was conveniently and legally required to be available. Read his great article on country music’s long history with the Confederate Flag, Lost Cause Ideology and where Dolly Parton and The Dixie Chicks fit into all of this.
Stars Finally Bar the Stars and Bars
How country culture is drawing a Mason-Dixon line between hatred and “heritage.”
I am from the small town of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. When I was growing up there, the town had three fruit orchards but no traffic light. And though Stewartstown is several miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw a lot of Confederate Flags.
The Confederate Flag is back in the news as various pop culture entities are finally removing it from their branding in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests against the brutality and white supremacy of America’s police. NASCAR has banned the Stars and Bars at long last. Country act Lady Antebellum is changing their name to just “Lady A.” “Antebellum” means “before the war,” and refers to an idealized vision of Southern society, but more on that in a moment.
Though Lady A claims the band is named after an “antebellum-style home” (a plantation) they did a photoshoot in, it’s clear from their apology and their Southern roots they knew what the word meant.
The Confederate Flag is a symbol of racism and hatred and does not have a place in public life.
Unfortunately, this view is just now taking hold in many parts of rural America. Growing up, the Confederate Flag was everywhere. Musicians like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock, television shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, and comedians like Larry the Cable Guy, all used the Confederate Flag to promote their brand.
Confederate Flags could be bought at carnivals and were often seen on truck bumper stickers. And again, this was in the North. I once saw a Confederate Flag flying in Northern Maine on a camping trip.
While some of my classmates and town elders who displayed the Confederate Flag harbored explicit racist tendencies -- York, Pennsylvania had a race war in the 1960s in which the future mayor was an accomplice to murder, the owner of my local diner was in the KKK, and I have seen a burning cross with my own eyes -- some people honestly didn’t consider the history of the flag and just thought it was cool. This isn’t to say they weren’t being racist by embracing the Confederate Flag, but I do believe they were not conscious that they were being racist.
They did not come to this conclusion on their own. Lots of Southern aristocratic money has been funneled into advancing “Lost Cause” ideology around the Confederacy in the Civil War. A key aspect of the Lost Cause was normalizing and even valorizing the Confederate Flag.
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Lost Cause ideology is the FALSE idea that the Southern side in the Civil War fought for something fundamentally extricated from slavery, that the Confederacy was fighting for a high-minded concept of independence, chivalry, and decency that somehow made their cause noble. Lost Cause adherents also believe that the Civil War was a war of Northern aggression (it wasn’t, Confederates started it by attacking Fort Sumter, and were flirting with secession for decades) and that the South would had a superior class of officers and soldiers (they did not, insurgent commanders always look good early in wars against occupying armies).
In reality, Southern society was deeply aristocratic and unfair dating back to the founding of the nation. In addition to championing chattel slavery, South Carolina was a royalist state always dragging New England away from its Democratic ideals, and Virginia was not much better. The Civil War was about slavery, and if you believe it was about states’ rights, just look at the various states’ rights measures the South opposed for Northern states from 1776-1861. The Civil War was about a state’s right… to continue slavery.
But, if your ancestors fought for the Confederacy, the Lost Cause can be seductive.
Lost Cause ideology was pervasive in twentieth century history. Shelby Foote, who was perhaps the most prominent Civil War historian of the last century, made famous by Ken Burns’ Civil War, was a proponent of Lost Cause. Groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy continue to promote it today. In fact, many of the supposedly hallowed Civil War statues that are being torn down today were not constructed until the early 1900s as Lost Cause ideology came to predominate after the failure of Reconstruction and rise of Jim Crow.
Gone With the Wind-- recently removed from HBO Max -- is essentially Lost Cause propaganda with some sexual assault and cute dresses thrown in for good measure. The Thing that is “gone with the wind” in the title is the Antebellum South of the romantic Lost Cause version of history.
This brings me to the word Dixie, and the band name The Dixie Chicks. In 2018, Dolly Parton renamed her Pigeon Forge dinner theater from“The Dixie Stampede” to “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” saying her company was responding to “changing attitudes.”
The word “dixie” originated in New Orleans as a term for French currency, coming from a mispronunciation of the word for ten, dix. Contrary to popular belief it is not derived from the Mason-Dixon line (named for Jeremiah Dixon), which came after. “Dixie” came to describe Southern states as a nickname for the Deep South. But “Dixie,” the song, promotes Lost Cause ideology: it was the rallying cry of the Confederates; it was commonly used in minstrel shows; it’s in the soundtrack to the film Birth of a Nation. In the late 1940s, Southerners who supported segregation and white supremacist laws aligned themselves with a political party called the “Dixiecrats.”
The Dixie Chicks, who are now being called to change their name like Lady A did, used the lyrics of a 1973 Little Feat song to inspire their band name. Famously:
If you'll be my Dixie chicken, I'll be your Tennessee lamb / And we can walk together down in Dixieland/ Down in Dixieland
In this instance, a Dixie chicken (versus a Tennessee lamb) is meant to describe a woman from the Deep South dating an Appalachian man, despite their different backgrounds. However, just like Lady A knowing the meaning of “antebellum,” it’s probable that The Dixie Chicks have at least heard the song “Dixie” or the term “Dixiecrat.” Dolly Parton had.
The Dixie Chicks have an album coming out this July, and with their history of political outspokenness, it’s entirely possible a name change could be on the horizon.
I assume that most of my wife’s readers are from urban or suburban areas (though if you’re from the country, give me a “Git ‘R Done” or “Yeehaw” in the comments), and the announcement that NASCAR is finally banning Confederate Flags may strike you as just the end of a weird anachronistic era. In fact, this is a big deal, because big money pop culture entities are finally rejecting the last vestiges of the Lost Cause.
When I was in 11th grade honors history in my small town, we had a class discussion about whether the Confederate Flag was a symbol of “heritage” or a symbol of hate. I -- with my NPR-loving granola-making liberal parents -- was one of the few people in the class to argue for “hate.” But, I lost the class debate: the majority of the highest achieving students in my school were in support of the Confederate Flag in 2003. My teacher did not tell them they were wrong.
As the poorly-made Confederate Statues from 1915 finally come down and state fair circuit 70s Southern Rock bands finally take the Stars and Bars off of their tour merchandise, rural America has a new opportunity. We can celebrate the independent, rugged, rambunctious attitude that makes the great spaces between the cities so great while including the millions of Black and Brown people who have shaped the country as farmers, country singers, diner waitresses, cowboys, park rangers, and monster truck drivers over the years.
Though some committed racists have just replaced the Stars and Bars with the Blue Lives Matter flag or Trump 2020 yard signs, I like to think that the 11th grade honors history class at Kennard-Dale High School is having a different conversation with different results today.
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz: In Confederates, Horwitz travels the South, attending Civil War reenactments, Gone With the Wind cosplay festivals, and other Civil War history events, exploring how Lost Cause ideology is laundered and sold in America. It’s also really funny.
White Rage by Carol Anderson: This book is a history of white supremacy that carefully examines how racism has adapted and renamed itself with ideas like the Lost Cause following the failure of Reconstruction. Not funny.
White Trash: The Untold 400 Year History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg: White Trash is about how wealthy whites have long used politics and pop culture to pit poor whites against minority groups and co-opted political and social anger for their own ends while suppressing class-consciousness, including the Lost Cause. Sometimes funny.