I WISH THERE WAS NO PRISONS/I WISH I WAS IN DIXIE
One of the things I love about traditional songs (and stories) is that they remain relevant. They might be centuries old but when you sing them people can identify them with contemporary issues.
Recently the song Dixie and the flying of the Confederate flag in parts of USA has been at the top of the news as the epidemic of unarmed black men being shot and killed by white police has outraged everyone there and astonished us here . (Although it’s not entirely unknown in UK!) I thought we’d consigned that sort of thing to history back in the 60s and 70s, but not so.
President Obama excelled himself, I thought, with his sermon and singing of Amazing Grace at the church in Charleston. It was what we had been expecting from him and hoping for ever since his inauguration. Sadly, it’s only now, in the final days of his presidency, when he could be a lame duck, that he seems to be daring to be himself. Alright, I guess that performance hardened the attitudes of his detractors who didn’t want a Black in the White House but, to me, it seemed real.
LITTLE CHART, KENT, UK
So how is this relevant to me? In 2007 I went to Washington DC to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—as a representative of Kent where I was born—a ‘cultural exemplar’ no less! It was one of those life-changing experiences. One of the first things which struck me about Washington was the multi-racial nature of the place. At least on the festival site there were couples of every possible racial mix walking hand in hand. But that was in the ‘posh’ part of the capital city. I knew it wasn’t like that everywhere.
Our part of the festival was marking the 500th anniversary of the founding of Virginia so, as well as the Kentish contingent, there were a lot of people from that state—black, white and Native American. Superficially they/we all seemed to get on well but I believe I half overheard a racist conversation going on once and some of the blacks told us about how they had no electricity or running water in their village because the white powers-that-be didn’t want them to be too comfortable or established. (Note: ‘their’ village!)
I sang I Wish There Was No Prisons several times there thinking that the American audience would be able to identify with it and would find the use of ‘their’ tune interesting. No-one ever said anything to me but I did hear a whisper that someone was uncomfortable with it because of the racist connotation of the tune.
I WISH THERE WAS NO PRISONS is a seemingly innocuous little bit of nonsense. In 1994 a group of us—all singers who came from or who lived in Kent—got together to record an album of Kentish Folk Songs—The Keys of Canterbury. It did very, very well and was repressed a couple of times so it has only recently been discontinued. (The artists involved were myself, Bing Lyle, Ron Spicer, Andy Turner, Bob Kenward and Dave & Kath Grabham.)
When I was looking around to choose what I should sing on the new album I came across I Wish There Was No Prisons and immediately decided to do it. Since then it has become a regular part of my repertoire for when I need a chorus song which everyone can join in with without any problem.
Here it is on You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qSWf0zFvYo
I Wish There Ws No Prisons comes from the singing of Ron Spicer's father George Spicer (1906-1981). He was one of the foremost traditional singers from Kent abd can be heard on a Topic LP 'Blackberry Fold' (1974).
George was born at Little Chart, near Ashford, in 1906 and worked as a herdsman around the Dover/Deal area until 1940 when he moved to Sussex. He had a wide repertoire of songs, many of which he’d learned from other members of his family or from neighbours. They were in various styles from old folk ballads like Henry My Son to Music Hall songs.
Unlike some traditional singers who only sang in the privacy of their own homes, or to themselves whilst they were working, George was a born ‘performer’ who loved to sing at the local pubs. This resulted in him sometimes ‘putting on’ a voice, as if he was trying to mimic a trained singer and ‘milking’ the audience reaction to certain lines. Approved sources say that genuine traditional singers don’t do those things but some obviously did!
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, USA
As I say, I didn’t give much thought to ‘Prisons’. It was a jolly, humorous song and good to join in with. I thought it a bit odd that it should use that particular tune but folk music is full of strange things like that! So where did the tune come from?I Wish I Was in Dixie is one of the iconic American folk songs—all be it, one that divides the country. Its authorship is still disputed although it is generally accepted that one Daniel Emmett had a lot to do with it, either as actual author or, at least, populariser. It was definitely a product of the American ‘black face’ minstrel scene of the 1850s. That probably started with actual black performers and was then copied by white men ‘blacking up’ (viz Al Jolson) and continued, in this country, until well into my adult life with The Black & White Minstrel Show on BBC TV from 1958-78. By the time that show finished it was becoming more and more controversial as we became aware of the inherent racism in both the songs and the whole premis.
There were minstrel troops in the British Music Halls in the 19th century and it was probably from there that the tune entered the English tradition.
I Wish I Was in Dixie—in the original version, pokes fun at Southern Negroes and the way they speak. Like many of Stephen Foster’s songs which were so popular on both sides of the Atlantic it is in patois (what Wikipedia primly calls 'African American Vernacular') and in it all the happy blacks love ‘de ol’ plantation’ and the ‘massa’. When it was taken up by the Confederate States as one of their anthems the ‘humour’ took on a whole deeper level of spite. It has continued to be played and sung however: it was one of the favourite songs of Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley recorded it—and it’s played by marching bands at Southern Universities... There are all kinds of performances of it on You Tube.
Now, though, you’d have to think hard before you sang it in USA, unless, of course, you wanted to make a particular racist statement.
I can never imagine myself singing ‘Dixie’. For a start I have no connection with the southern states of the USA and no great interest in them, and secondly it represents everything I dislike about that culture—the gun toting, bigoted, racist, redneck. (I’m not saying that everyone in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia etc is like that but that song represents, to me, those that are.) Neither can I understand the obsession some people here have with the USA generally. Why do they dress and eat like American’s? What is so great about an American Diner? How can anyone bear to drink cola? Why do English people want a confederate flag on their car or tattooed on their arm? What is so great about a film just because it’s made in Hollywood?
I would be the first to say that there is some great music in America—much of it in or from the South—but I don’t want to play it. I’m interested in it largely because of the way it reflects on the music of England—my music.
I don’t suggest that Dixie and the Confederate flag should be forgotten. No, they should be remembered as a dark part of U.S. history in the same way that the swastika is a dark part of European history. If we forget them they will re-emerge.
I won’t stop singing ‘Prisons’ but I might point out the problems with the tune...
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This blog has come quite soon after my first one. That's partly so that I could learn better how to do it and because the subject was topical. I won't be writing blogs too often - I'm aiming at once a month, but it depends on what comes up and when inspiration strikes. I'd welcome your (constructive) comments and would be very pleased if you did sign up to 'follow' me!