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A year ago, I fielded a call from Potomac, Md., resident Andrea Graham, who for years has been complaining to public television station WETA about its annual “D.C. Fireworks Extravaganza” program—-a half-hour of stock footage that the station airs after its broadcast of the “Capitol Fourth” concert and fireworks presentation. Pretty innocuous-sounding, right? Not to Graham, who takes offense to the inclusion in “Fireworks Extravaganza” of three minstrel songs. Two of them, “Dixie” and “Camptown Races,” have become American standards. The other is the Stephen Foster song “Old Black Joe.”
“They lost,” Graham said of “Dixie,” once the anthem of the Confederate States of America. “We don’t play Japan’s patriotic song.”
She’ll be disappointed again this year. “Fireworks Extravaganza” is on WETA’s schedule this July 4, and the station’s vice president for external affairs, Mary Stewart, says there have been no changes to the soundtrack.
The station gets one or two calls every year complaining about the songs, WETA’s general manager Kevin Harris told me last July. “The phones don’t ring off the line, even though it’s our most watched program of the year,” he said. In the last year, however, the station received only one comment related to the music in “Fireworks Extravaganza,” but it wasn’t a complaint, Stewart says.
Some backstory: According to Harris, WETA captured the footage in 1992 on the National Mall, but radio station WMAL was in charge of the music that night. Following the live broadcast of “A Capitol Fourth”—-which typically ends around 9:30 p.m.—-WETA shows “Fireworks Extravaganza,” and then reruns “A Capitol Fourth” at 10 p.m.
So is it appropriate to play songs that were once performed in blackface? Yes and no.
“[The genre] is not simply racist, but it is certainly, among other things, racist,” music historian Elijah Wald told me last year.
Stephen Foster biographer Ken Emerson said that although many minstrel songs are racially offensive, “Old Black Joe” isn’t necessarily one of them. “It’s a very sympathetic song,” said Emerson. “Of course there’s racism in this music—there’s racism in all the history of the 19th century. You can’t expunge it…I think you can play anything as long as you explain [to listeners] what they’re about to hear and why they’re about to hear it and what they’re about to learn from it.”
Of course, the WETA footage doesn’t contain much in the way of historical context. At least the explosions are pretty.