Friday, June 1, 2012

How New York and the South are Similar # 1

Recently, I returned to Knoxville, TN to attend the nuptial celebration of some dear friends. After a (semi-intense) reunion with my beloved car (affectionately named Rhett Butler), the first thing I did when I put the car in gear was roll the windows down and stick my hand out of the sunroof, driving up Alcoa Highway with the wind whipping through my fingers – the feeling of comfort and freedom and summer.  Oh, those su-ummer ni-ights.  (Tell me more, tell me more.  Ok, you asked...)

The first thing I encountered upon my morning return to New York City was a torrential downpour.  Naturally, I had no umbrella, so I dragged my suitcase through huge puddles and was quite literally dripping wet when I made it up to work.  Thus ensued about five days of gray, dismal city.

But despite these differences (and some obvious distinctions such as climate, cost of living, etc.), New York City and the South are remarkably similar in some key ways. 

You doubt, you scoff.  Let me explain:

  1. Each has a theme song.  Multiple, actually.

New York:

When you mention New York City in any conversation, you will receive a singing answer roughly 70% of the time.  It either starts with a vocal interpretation:

DA-DA-da-da-da, DA-DA-da-da-da

And/or one line

Start spreading the news…

Old Blue Eyes, of course. (Though I do also really love the new, quieter Carey Mulligan cover.) Guy, the desk guard at our previous office building, sang it to me on multiple occasions as he printed my building pass; even New Yorkers sometimes get a hankering for such a famous tune.

The more modern equivalent of a New York theme song has to be the Alicia Keys and Jay-Z (the self-proclaimed “New Sinatra”) collaboration “Empire State of Mind”:

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York



 The South:

 An untold number of country songs laud the south, “redneck” men and women, and general “good ol’ country life” that leave the rest of the nation convinced that Southerners really don’t wear shoes (except for the occasional cowboy boot) and deem the tractor an appropriate and preferred method of transportation to and from all events.

I‘ll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip. I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high class broad.  I’m just a product of my raising and I say hey y’all and yee-haw. (Gretchen Wilson)

With a little bit of chicken fried.  Cold beer on a Friday night.  Pair of jeans that fit just right, and the radio on. (Zac Brown Band)

You can have a lot of fun in a New York minute
But there’s some things you can’t do inside those city limits
Ain’t no closing time, ain’t no cover charge
Just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm. (Tim McGraw)

But then there’s "Dixie," the song most associated with and adopted by the South (unfortunately so)**:

I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

Theme Song Philosophizing

The problem with both New York’s and the South’s theme songs is that they are poor representations of each location.  The “New York, New York” theme has become the hopeful picture of individual success and dream-fulfillment, the embodiment of New York idealism.  Jay-Z even acknowledges the false hope, probably because he’s “out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie” and recognizes that New York, like most other places in America, hails the privileged few that actually do make it, the millionaires who can afford real estate in Manhattan and afford the life of indulgence that this city demands:

City, it’s a pity, half of y’all won’t make it.

I know a great many people in the South, even ones whom I have referred to as “good country folk” or “rednecks,” and they are multi-dimensional and own several pairs of shoes.  Regarding the use of y’all – well, I have long made the case that it’s a fine, gender-inclusive term that the entire English-speaking world should employ, seeing how they’ve done away with the plural “you.”  Y’all get on that now, ya hear?

But "Dixie"…now, it might be a theme song, but I acknowledge it’s not one to be proud of (though many Southerners ignorantly are, I’ll admit). Born out of the minstrelsy tradition, adopted by the CSA, the tune is far too racially charged to be acknowledged anywhere. When my family first moved to the South from the Midwest in 1997, my parents attended my dad’s company Christmas party.  When the “Star Spangled Banner” played, few people stood or showed the respect it’s given at all major sporting events.  But when “Dixie” played…you would have thought that the South had actually won “The War of Northern Aggression.”  When my parents didn’t stand, others interpreted this as a clear display of their own unwelcome northern aggression.

When I attended Ole Miss in 2004, the (relatively new) tradition of The Pride of the South band playing “From Dixie with Love” ended every football game.  This song was a mash-up of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” except at the end, when the line should be “His truth is marching on,” everyone joined in, raising their blue and red poms (which had only replaced Confederate flags in 1997) and chanting “the South will rise again,” a slogan identified with the Ku Klux Klan. Only in 2010 did Colonel Reb officially get replaced by the Ole Miss Black Bear.

Yeah, it’s not a college without serious racial issues and a sordid past.  But I went to Ole Miss, and most people I associated with wanted nothing to do with any of the school’s racist traditions.  I knew people who started racial reconciliation groups.  As odd as it sounds, I knew plenty of Southern hipsters who loved Oxford, not Ole Miss, who created music and embraced the vibrant literary tradition of Faulkner’s town.  The South as a whole isn’t necessarily a place dominated by country life (there are cities in the South, people – and some great ones, too) or racist tradition, though I won’t deny that those exist.  But the South has diversity, too; there are different kinds of South (Old South, New South, Deep South, Appalachia, Delta, Coast, etc.) just as there are different neighborhoods and boroughs in New York.

A recap. How New York and the South are similar #1: misrepresentative theme songs.

Next installment: stereotyped renditions of the silver screen.  Stay tuned.

*Click on any of the links for YouTube videos and performances of the songs discussed.
**Christian McWhirter contributed a piece to the New York Times op-ed about "The Birth of 'Dixie'".  Check it out.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how i got so behind on your blogs but they are enthralling