The recent flap over the Confederate flag continues to reach into other sectors of culture unrelated to the issues of the flag being displayed on public property or its potential use as a symbol of racism. From Apple banning certain Civil War games (though some have been reinstated), to fear of the banning of Gone With The Wind, to TV Land now canceling reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard, hysteria has set in, and it looks to undermine elements of Southern culture that otherwise are innocuous, and in some instances, historically significant.
But this is not the first time hysteria has jeopardized Southern institutions. In the late 60’s, the song “Dixie” was strongly-identified with slavery and other unsavory elements of the Confederate cause. A robust effort to ban the song was undertaken, and it was generally rebuked in many sectors of American culture. But one relatively unknown, but well-respected songwriter and country music artist named Mickey Newbury decided to take a stand and prove the beauty of the song beyond whatever historical connotations, and soon a love for “Dixie” and an appreciation for the song was reinstated.
The main vehicle for the renewed understanding and appreciation for “Dixie” was a medley called “An American Trilogy” that became a standard of Elvis Presley’s live show for many years. But it started with the songwriter—Mickey Newbury, and one fateful evening in Hollywood where Newbury was asked to perform for a distinguished crowd that included Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Streisand, Mama Cass, Joan Baez, and most notably, singer and civil rights activist Odetta.
The moment, chronicled below by Chris Campion in the liner notes of Mickey Newbury’s An American Trilogy compilation album exemplifies how sometimes what seems to be a polarizing element of culture can actually breed understanding and compassion for one another through the healing virtues of artistic expression.
by Chris Campion
He stared deep into the past with a gaze haunted and pained, conjuring the sorrow of an age through a melody as familiar and urgent as a bugle call and a voice soaring, gentle and true. A voice that seemed so much larger than the body it inhabited.
“Look away, look away…”
But then, everything about Mickey Newbury seemed unassuming. From the compact, wiry frame that looked so fragile yet imparted a formidable power when hunched and taut over his Ramirez guitar. To his conservative mode of dress—shirt buttoned almost the the neck, collar starched, jeans pressed, boots shined—and the way he wore his hair—neatly-cut, combed, parted. Even his smile seemed shy at full beam. Everything, that is, except his voice and the way he took anyone who heard it on a journey.
And that’s certainly how it must have seemed to the great and good of Hollywood who had gathered on Thanksgiving weekend 1970 to see and hear this modest fellow from the Lone Star State make his West Coast debut and were stunned into silence as they witnessed Mickey Newbury give the performance of his life.
It seemed as if the song was not just coming from inside him but as if he was outside himself and inside the song. The sound pushed out in waves. Calming, resolute, cleansing. The atmosphere in the club seemed to be frozen in slow motion, moving with the illusion of stillness. The entire audience rapt in the moment, as if trapped in amber, attention fixed upon the solitary figure on stage illuminated by a soft curtain of light, with just his guitar for accompaniment. And that illusion was broken only by a tear that rolled down the cheek of a great gospel singer sitting out in the audience.
“Look away, look away. Look away, Dixieland…”
There was no indication at all that this same song had recently ripped through the country like a hurricane, creating so much turbulence in its wake that it’s performance had been outlawed in state after state; a song considered an affront to the advances of the 60’s civil rights movement and so divisive and inflammatory that when Mickey announced his intention to play it in the dressing room just before he was to take the stage club owner Paul Colby went white with fear.
“Mickey, you can’t do that,” Colby protested. “They’ll tear this club apart.” Colby’s new venture, Bitter End West, a Los Angeles branch of his venerable New York folk club, had not been open a week and Mickey had been granted the privilege of playing its opening weekend.
“Well, get a shovel,” came Mickey’s reply, “cos I’m fixing to do it.”
Rather than introduce “Dixie” by name, Mickey preceded his performance with a short overture that he knew would play well to the audience of liberal Californians, industry folk and fellow artists.
“Just this last week,” he began, “there was a song banned. I just can not understand why people think a song can be damaging. Anybody that loves truth and loves music would have no argument with ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ regardless of what Bob Dylan’s politics or personality was like.”
There were whoops of agreement. Mickey continued on, talking about the dangers and injustice of banning free speech, then he started into the song.
Almost as soon as he began playing, a woman at the back of the club got up from her seat and started clapping in march time, then quickly stopped realizing that she was making a fool of herself, because Mickey wasn’t playing “Dixie” in march time. He had instead slowed the song all the way down and pitched it as a ballad—quiet, insistent, weighted—an idea he had gotten from hearing Barbara Streisand’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” that invested the song with a pathos perfectly matched to its lyric.
Streisand was, as it happened, in the club that night with her latest conquest, a hot up-and-coming singer-songwriter called Kris Kristofferson, and was imploring him to move on with her to another venue. But Kris Kristofferson would not budge. He had come to see a friend whom he credited, in large part, with helping to kick-start his career as well as being a huge influence on his own songwriting. Joan Baez, another friend of Mickey’s, also watched that night. And sitting front and centre on the club’s wooden church pew seating, sandwiched between Mama Cass and Odetta, Mickey’s 23-year-old wife, Susan.
“I didn’t know if Odetta was gonna be offended,” Susan recalls, of the moment Mickey started into “Dixie.” “I didn’t know what to think. I just held my breath and so did everybody else.”
“There was an energy in the room,” said Mickey. “I felt the whole audience being pushed away from me. I could feel this energy, just like a wave of wind. Just pushing them back to the back wall. And I just kept singing.”
From the stage, he could see Odetta’s eyes glisten as they welled up, her face shine as the emotion stained her cheek. He was so torn up seeing this influential figure moved to tears right there in front of him that he could not bring himself to stop and be forced to take stock; instead, he segued instinctively into the refrain of another song entirely, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—a song that was to the North as “Dixie” was the the South and into which he ploughed all his distress:
“Glory, glory hallelujah…”
And even then it didn’t seem appropriate to finish, so he shifted into “All My Trials,” a Bahamian lullaby turned plantation spiritual that Mickey later confessed to have heard on only two prior occasions. But it fit so well, forming a breach and symbolizing a quiet revolution to the other two songs, charged as they were by their association with Civil War conflict.
“When he got done,” says Susan, ‘you could have heard a pin drop in that club. There was not a sound.” The silence was a chasm. Then Mama Cass broke it by jumping up from her seat to clap and yell her approval. And, at her lead, the entire place erupted with an applause that seemed to last forever.
“They stood and screamed and hollered like you would not believe,” Mickey would later recall. “It was the most electrifying performance of my life.”
“Mickey would destroy a room of people,” maintained Kris Kristofferson.
All the violence, all the rage, all the controversy that “Dixie” had inspired seemed to be swallowed up by the majesty of his performance. And, on stage that night, “An American Trilogy” was born.
“An American Trilogy” originally appeared on the Mickey Newbury album ‘Frisco Mabel Joy from 1971.
“Dixie” originated in blackface minstrel shows of the 1850’s, and was adopted as the song of the Confederacy during The Civil War. The day after Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S.Grant at Appomattox President Lincoln came out on the streets of Washington DC to address a throng of people gathered to celebrate the news and requested the band play “Dixie” before they played “Yankee Doodle.” “I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” Lincoln said.