Fake Histories #20  Did the concept of ‘separate but equal’ originate with the apartheid regime in South Africa?   

 

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If I was to say ‘Plessy v Ferguson’ to you, you might respond with something like ‘was that a tractor race?’ Well no, actually. It’s got something to do with race all right, but not tractors. Let me just mention for the moment that the Plessy in question was a young man named Homer Plessy, an unassuming French-speaking shoemaker from Louisiana, rather than an electronics conglomerate. Ferguson was John Howard Ferguson, a New Orleans judge, and not a manufacturer of agricultural goods. Now let’s park them both for the moment.

Twenty-five years ago this week Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. While the architects of apartheid didn’t just turn in their graves, they crawled out and demanded to be relocated. Today is also the anniversary of a pivotal, and unanimous, 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. This ruled that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unconstitutional. The case centred on young Linda Brown an African-American girl who had been refused admission to an elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of her race.

Bear with me. All these events are related.

Back in 1994 Mandela and the African National Congress had finally triumphed over an iniquitous system introduced in 1948 to maintain minority white rule. Apartheid, which translates from Afrikaans as ‘separateness’ but really means ‘segregation’, was supposed to be a form of administration that allowed for the separate development of the races in South Africa. In fact, it merely institutionalised racial discrimination. Most of its supporters were fairly upfront about a regime that, for example, banned mix race marriages in 1949, and went one better the following year by forbidding sexual relations across racial lines. But there were a few of the fluffier supporters of apartheid who liked to claim that even though the races were kept apart this didn’t mean that they were not cherished equally. Picture someone watching a child being devoured by a grizzly bear going ‘nice teddy!’

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But did this spurious notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in South Africa?

This brings us back to Plessy v Ferguson. You’ll remember Homer Plessy, our Cajun shoemaker from the top of this item. Homer was something called an ‘octoroon’ – this means, in American parlance, that he was one-eighth black. In other words, one of his great grandparents was African American. In Irish terms, an octoroon is probably somebody who would be one-eighth Viking.

This meant that although he could ‘pass’—another one of those subtly coded American words—he was not legally permitted to travel in the ‘whites only’ carriage of a New Orleans rail car. So, he bought a ticket and did just that. He also arranged to be ‘discovered’ in this vile act and have himself arrested. This was done to challenge the legislation, the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890.

And that’s where John Howard Ferguson comes in. He was the judge who fined Homer Plessy twenty-five dollars and whose name was then attached to the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1896, in what is seen as one of the worst decisions ever by a US Supreme Court–though we have high hopes that the current bench will steal that title—Plessy was told that the penalty imposed on him did not violate the fourteenth amendment, which provides for equal treatment under the law for African Americans. Homer Plessy was, in effect, told by seven of the eight justices, that segregated facilities were perfectly all right in the USA, that he was ‘separate but equal’, and that he couldn’t have his twenty-five dollars back. To this day Plessy v Ferguson has never formally been overruled.

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Which brings us back to the sixty-fifth anniversary today of the judgement in the case of Brown v Board of Education, and the desire of eleven-year-old Linda Carol Brown to go to an elementary school close to her home. The school authorities told her she couldn’t because she was black. The Supreme Court, led by Earl Warren, told the city of Topeka Kansas that she could because she was a human being. That decision, and many more like it from the liberal US Supreme Courts of the sixties and seventies, have nullified the impact of the Homer Plessy’s twenty-five dollar fine and everything that flowed from it.

So, in answer to the question did the notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in apartheid, South Africa. No, it didn’t, the US Supreme Court got there in 1896, way ahead of Henrik Verwoerd. So, that’s fake history.

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Some nice people expressing their delight at the result of Brown v Board of Education

Fake Histories #19  –  Rudolf Hess was sent to Britain by Adolf Hitler in 1941 to negotiate peace with the UK?

 

 

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There is a very famous scatological verse, sung to the melody of the ‘Colonel Bogey March’ which refers to the testicular deficiencies of various leaders of Nazi Germany in World War Two. Hitler, or so the song informs us, only had one of the required pair, Goering’s were of inadequate dimensions, which was also the case with Himmler, and poor old Goebbels was entirely lacking in male reproductive organs of any kind. Obviously, the song itself is far less ponderous than my synopsis.

Missing, however, from this lineup, was the man who entered WW2 as Hitler’s deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess. His absence has nothing to with the fact that, as his surname is monosyllabic, it doesn’t scan very well in an obscene song. It has more to do with a bizarre flight he undertook on 10 May 1941. That was when he decided he’d like nothing better than a day trip to Scotland. We can all understand his yearning I’m sure. Scotland, is, after all a beautiful country, inhabited by some of the most sensible and enlightened people on the planet. But the date of his proposed trip made it extremely unwise. There was a war on, he was German, and he was flying a military plane into enemy territory.

So what was he up to? The answer, in general terms, was that he wanted to take Britain out of the war. Now he wasn’t crazy enough to believe that he would achieve this with a courageous kamikaze attack on some bewildered grouse on an estate in the northern highlands. He was on a diplomatic mission.

Hess, who had been more or less elbowed out of any real position of authority in the Nazi hierarchy, was nonetheless aware of the impending German invasion of Russia. Fearing a war on two fronts he came up with the brilliant idea of removing one of the fronts by dropping in on his old buddy, the Scottish laird Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton. Doug was a Caledonian aristocrat who clearly scorned variety when it came to names. Hess seemed to have got it into his head that all he had to do was sit down with Dougie over half a dram and a haggis and plucky Britain would roll over and sign a peace deal with Germany.

His destination was the ancestral home of the Dukes of Hamilton, Dungavel House. Today it’s an immigration removal centre, which is quite appropriate really as Hess has always been one of the most celebrated illegal immigrants in British history. It’s run by one of those American private prison outfits, which is equally appropriate as he spent more than four decades in an institution also partly run by Americans, Spandau Prison in Berlin.

You can probably guess what happened. He parachuted onto the scented Scottish heather, was picked up immediately and tossed in prison for the remainder of the war. In 1945 he was tried at Nuremberg and, unlike many of his even viler associates got a life sentence and ended up in Spandau with six more of the nicer Nazis.

As to whether he had the imprimatur of Führer Adolf for his madcap flight, well what do you think? Hitler might have been insane, but he wasn’t stupid. At the Nazi cabinet meeting on 11 May, he must have sensed something was odd and inquired,  ‘where’s Rudy?’

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Spandau prison might today have its own Visitor’s Centre, Starbuck’s franchise, and a darling little gift shop. Instead, it was demolished in 1987 after Hess’s suicide at the age of 93. This was to avoid it becoming a Nazi shrine. Wasn’t that a clairvoyant move now?

If I can make a massive digression for just a moment. You might be familiar with the music of the British 80s rock group Spandau Ballet and wonder where they got their name. And yes, it is derived from the prison. However, the classical dance in question is a reference to the frequent hangings that took place in the jail before it became downmarket accommodation for misbehaving Fascists.  If there is a better example of, quite literally,  gallows humour I would love to hear about it.

But, to come back to the question of Rudolf Hess’s solo flight to Scotland. Was it made with the knowledge and approval of Adolf Hitler, as some people claim? No, it was all his own really bad idea. So, it’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #18   George Lucas mapped out all the Star Wars movies in advance of the original film in 1977?

 

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May the Fourth be with you. That’s ‘Fourth’ as in the day after ‘Third’, just in case you thought I had developed a lithp. Tomorrow is Star Wars Day, so-called because the first Star Wars film was released on 4 May 1977.

Well no, actually! The first Star Wars film, now known as Star Wars: A New Hope, and which is, chronologically the fourth Star Wars film, was actually released on 25 May 1977. But, let’s face it, ‘May the twenty-fifth be with you’ doesn’t sound as catchy. So when and why was tomorrow singled out for such a thoroughly overwhelming honour? Is it the birthday of the genius behind the franchise, George Lucas? Is it the anniversary of the destruction of the Death Star? Is it the day Jar Jar Binks was given his P45? Is it Armistice Day in the Clone War? When do you want me to stop with the spurious suggestions? Because, naturally, it’s none of the above.

The date was chosen, organically, by Star Wars fans themselves, as their annual holy day of obligation and the Lucasfilm empire did not strike back. Instead, the makers of the franchise embraced and encouraged it. It’s actually a pun, ‘May the fourth … be with you’. Geddit? Now, with the Disney organisation in charge of the Millennium Falcon, May the Fourth will probably become to the Star Wars franchise what the equally spurious ‘Black Friday’ is to online retailers.

Back in the mid-70s, it didn’t look as if Star Wars would become the first film ever to make over $300m at the Box Office. It almost didn’t get made. Despite the commercial success of Lucas with American Graffiti, the script was turned down by every major studio except Twentieth Century Fox. When he showed a rough cut to some of his movie-making buddies it didn’t go down well. Brian de Palma described it as the worst movie he’d ever seen – he hadn’t made Mission to Mars at that point in his own career. The only one of Lucas’s mates who predicted a bright future was Steven Spielberg.

As a director, Lucas does not appear to have been very communicative with his actors. His instruction on re-takes was either ‘faster’ or ‘more intense’. Rumour has it that when he lost his voice on the shoot his assistant printed those words on two boards which Lucas used in lieu of vocal commands. He also second-guessed himself on the name of one of his central characters. When shooting began [spoiler alert] Princess Leia’s younger bro and Darth Vader’s little boy was called Luke Starkiller.

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There is an assumption, which probably began on the planet Tatooine, that when George Lucas got the idea for writing a film about ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ that he did a J.K.Rowling and sketched out in advance the basic plots for all nine movies. Rowling, you will recall, had a grand plan for the future of the inhabitants of Hogwarts when she set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now, when George Lucas conceived the notion of the Star Wars series he was not an impecunious and unknown British writer dependent on an Edinburgh café for light and heat. He was already a successful Hollywood director with one cult, and one mainstream movie hit to his credit. Neither do the dissimilarities end there. Unlike Rowling, he did not sketch out the plots of the movies in detail. While he DID envisage that Star Wars would be part of a series he did not outline in detail the fate of the characters, or even basic plot lines before he wrote the first film in the franchise. Initially, he appears to have been unsure whether that would run to nine or twelve films. On a scrap of paper on which he scribbled down a tentative plot for the first movie, it appears as number six in the putative series, not number four.

So, did George Lucas have it all figured out before he even began shooting the first Star Wars? That he did not. That’s fake history.

 

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PETER ‘CHEWBACCA’ MAYHEW  1944-2019  (RIP)

 

Fake Histories #17  John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln, was a lone assassin?

 

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Today is the one hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth. You may have heard of him, in the way that you might also be aware of Lee Harvey Oswald and have no clue whatever who Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau were.

The problem is that if you want to be remembered as an assassin you have to kill someone whose fame will endure!

Booth, was the actor who, infamously, murdered President Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, 14 April 1865, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.. Lee Harvey Oswald may have been the assassin who killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, or a patsy framed for the murder to protect those responsible. As he himself was shot dead we aren’t in a position to ask him which is the truth.

The reason why you’ve never heard of Czolgosz and Guiteau is that they killed American Presidents few people, including most Americans, can probably even name. Although the claims of Czolgosz to immortality are undoubtedly hampered by the fact that no one, other than fluent Polish speakers, can pronounce his name properly. For the record, Guiteau assassinated President James A Garfield in 1881 and Czolgosz accounted for President William McKinley in 1901.

Czolgosz and Guiteau were lone killers. Czolgosz was an anarchist who didn’t like politicians, while Guiteau wanted a government job and didn’t get it. Lee Harvey Oswald was either a lone killer, completely innocent or at the heart of a conspiracy. And I have no intention of delving any further into that one. That way lies madness. Though I would recommend reading the account of Anthony Summers if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Let’s get back to John Wilkes Booth. He was a member of a prominent theatrical family from Maryland. Which made him, technically a southerner, but only just. Maryland was actually a slave state that remained loyal to the Union in the American Civil War. Booth was an enthusiastic supporter of the Confederate cause. Before the war began he had, with immense satisfaction, attended the hanging of the great abolitionist John Brown, after his capture at Harper’s Ferry.

He did not stick around to see Brown’s body ‘a-mouldering in the grave’, in the words of the famous song. This was because he had an acting career to pursue. His love of the Confederacy did not, apparently, extend as far as joining up to fight for the cause. Throughout the Civil War, he continued to perform onstage, mainly in Shakespearean roles. Most of his performances took place in states loyal to the Union. In 1863 he was arrested in St. Louis after being overheard proclaiming that ‘he wished the President and the whole damn government would go to hell’. The great Confederate supporter then signed a pledge of loyalty to the Union, in order to be allowed to pursue his acting career.

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In 1864, with the Confederate cause faltering, Booth became involved in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Among his associates was one Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend from Baltimore. The plot came to nothing but was revived after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s army in April 1865. This time, however, the object was an assassination. When Booth heard that Lincoln was to attend a performance in Ford’s theatre, to which he had ready access, he arranged an escape route and secured a .41 calibre Deringer pistol. That night, at around 10.00 pm, he stole into the President’s box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then jumped from the box onto the stage, apparently shouted the Latin phrase ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’) and fled. His escape was assisted by other members of the conspiracy, but he got no further than eastern Virginia before being tracked down. The barn in which he was holed up was surrounded by Union troops and when Booth refused to surrender it was set alight. When Booth emerged he was shot by a Union soldier. Upon searching his body a diary was found. The entry for the day of Lincoln’s assassination read, ‘Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.’

Subsequently, eight others were tried for their part in the conspiracy by a Military Tribunal, these included Michael O’Laughlen. Four were hanged, O’Laughlen was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Which contradicts the assumption that Booth, like other American Presidential assassins, was a lone killer. That’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES #16   Eamon de Valera escaped execution in 1916 because he was an American citizen?

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Given that one of the highest ranking survivors of the 1916 Rising went on to dominate Irish politics for almost three decades, surely one of the great imponderables of Irish history must be, ‘What if Patrick Pearse had been granted his wish, and he alone was executed after the surrender of the Volunteers?’ How would the avowed Marxist, James  Connolly have fared in the Ireland of the 1920s, assuming he recovered from his wounds? What roles would Sean MacDermott and Thomas Clarke have played in the Anglo-Irish war? We would certainly have got some excellent poetry from Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh.

But only one of the pivotal military leaders managed to survive, Eamon de Valera, and if his subsequent political career is anything to go by, the 1920s and 30s would have been even more interesting with the input of other surviving signatories.

So much for ‘What if?’ you might say, and you’d probably be right. Except that there is a huge counterfactual element—as historians put it—to de Valera’s own narrative. As in, ‘what if’ he hadn’t been born in New York and the British military authorities were reluctant to execute him for fear of antagonising the US administration.

So, let’s clear up a few things about de Valera and his involvement in 1916. First, there’s the assumption that he was the highest ranking survivor. He wasn’t. He was actually outranked by an extraordinary 20-year-old Volunteer named Seán McLaughlin who was promoted to commandant-general around the time of the evacuation of the GPO.

Dev was in command of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers based in Boland’s Mills. A small unit, formally under his command, was responsible for causing the most serious damage to the British Army during the rebellion, when they inflicted over two hundred casualties, mainly on the Sherwood Foresters, at Mount Street Bridge. De Valera, however, played no active part in that famous engagement.

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After the surrender, De Valera and his unit were taken to the RDS where they were held prisoner. This was probably a crucial element in his survival. Had he, like most of the other leaders of the Rising, been brought to Richmond Barracks and quickly court-martialled, history could have been very different. But, he was not a signatory to the Proclamation and was only belatedly court-martialled, so he had to wait his turn to be executed or to have his death sentence commuted by the military governor, General Sir John Maxwell.

The first dozen firing squad victims fell quickly, within four days of each other. Then there was a pause, during which a hugely adverse reaction set in, not just in Dublin but in London. With the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on his way to Dublin—with the clear intention of ending the executions—the priority for the military authorities was to dispose of the final two signatories of the Proclamation, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly before a wavering Asquith could step in and save them.

A Dublin barrister, William Wylie, who had been involved on the legal side in the Courts-Martial, was actually approached by General Maxwell and asked about de Valera. Maxwell wanted to know was he someone who might give trouble in the future. Wylie, by now thoroughly disillusioned with the entire process, might well have saved de Valera’s life when he responded in the negative. Had he not done so there might well have been a third victim of the firing squad on 12 May 1916. De Valera, of course, went on to prove Wylie spectacularly wrong. He managed to cause the British authorities quite a bit of bother, right up to and beyond, the Economic War of the 1930s, and the fateful decision to establish Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two.

So, de Valera’s survival was more to do with timing than with his American citizenship. If the British had been worried about that sort of thing they would not have executed Thomas Clarke either. He had become an American citizen in 1883.

Did de Valera escape execution in 1916 because he was born in New York? No, he didn’t. That’s fake history.

Fake Histories #15   12.4.2019 The Icelandic Eyjafjallakökull eruption of 2010 was the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history?

 

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Who can forget that week in April 2010 when a mountain in Iceland closed the airspace of 20 countries and left millions of travellers stranded.

Eyjafjallakökull   [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] hereinafter referred to, for obvious reasons, as the Icelandic volcano, or Eye-ah for short, blew its top and spewed tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The jet stream obligingly moved location until it was directly over the mountain so that the powerful volcano could just mainline straight into the planetary wind system of the northern hemisphere. The jet stream at the time also happened to be pointing in just the right direction for maximum havoc. It might have been facing north-west, towards Greenland? But no, it was contentedly pointing south-east, straight for mainland Europe. Nothing without feathers could fly for a week.

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Among those inconvenienced was actor and comedian John Cleese who forked out around €4000 for one of the longest taxi rides in history. When his flight from Norway was cancelled he got a cab driver to take him from Oslo to Brussels, passing through six countries en route. Thus Cleese proved himself just as capable of doing a silly drive as a silly walk. Then there was the international rugby match between Switzerland and Lithuania that had to be cancelled as well. Which was quite astonishing really as, prior to that, nobody even knew that Switzerland and Lithuania had the vaguest notion what the game of rugby was about.

The crisis came to an end, in part at least, when a thoroughly fed up Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and a former Aer Lingus pilot, decided the authorities were being over-zealous in grounding flights, so he went up in a BA 747 which flew into the remnants of the cloud to prove that it could be done without causing death and destruction. In doing so Walsh went some way towards atoning for the debacle of the opening Heathrow’s Terminal Five two years earlier.

But was that mid-Atlantic volcanic event the most disruptive in modern history? If you were one of the 20 million air passengers whose flights were dumped you would be tempted to think so. But spare a thought for the victims of the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815. The Icelandic volcano with the uncomfortably long name killed no one, although it ruined lots of sun holidays and business trips. The Tambora event directly killed 10,000 and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands more all across the planet.

Tambora was a volcanic mountain on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. It had been dormant for several centuries before it erupted in April 1815, with such force that the noise could be heard on Sumatra, more than 2000 kilometres away. The explosion was four times the magnitude of the famous Krakatoa eruption seven decades later. The ash that was hurled into the atmosphere was carried across the entire globe and the strange yellow skies of the summer of 1815 were recorded in England by the great British landscape artist J.M.W.Turner.

But it didn’t stop there. With the particles of ash remaining in the atmosphere, summer of the following year simply never materialised. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by half a degree Celsius. 1816 became the infamous ‘Year Without a Summer’. Snow fell in June, frost was reported in August. In Hungary brown snow fell, in Italy it was red. Europe was especially badly afflicted as it was attempting to recover from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Almost 100,000 are believed to have died as an indirect result of the consequential disruption of crops. Many of those were in Ireland, where the plummeting summer temperatures resulted in one of the many famines of the 19thcentury as the wheat, oats and potato harvests all failed.

So cold was the weather in the summer of 1816 that a small group of English travellers in Switzerland spent most of their walking holiday indoors. They devised a method of staving off boredom by writing ghost stories. One of the tourists was a certain Mary Shelley. Her story went on to achieve some notoriety as Frankenstein.

So, was the eruption of Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history? Not by a lava flow. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #14 –  The song ‘Dixie’ originated in the American South?​   

 

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I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland

In Dixieland where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’

Look away, look away, Look away, Dixieland

Thus begins a song that was premiered this week in 1859, two years before the vicious conflict that made it famous. Dixie, a sentimental ballad about the joys of life below the Mason-Dixon line, resonated with southerners then and still does today. Which makes it doubly ironic—given its often dubious modern association with white supremacists—that is was written not only by a northern supporter of Abraham Lincoln, but an Irish-American at that, and one who worked for a music hall act led by two Irish brothers.

Dixie could hardly be less ‘southern’ than if it had been born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. It emerged from the American tradition of the ‘blackface’ minstrel. These were white performers, who like the thoroughly modern Ali G, liked to pretend they were black. Among their number was an Irish-American singer/performer from Ohio named Daniel Decatur Emmett. He was a member of a troupe of music hall singers led by a pair of New York Irish brothers named O’Neill. The song quickly became a rousing closer for their touring show. It became a popular favourite all over the USA. A presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, used it at his rallies to get the crowds going. By the time Dan Emmet died more than thirty people were claiming they had written the song.

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Many years later Emmet ruefully observed that ‘If I had known to what use they were going to put my song I’ll be damned if I had written it’. ‘They’ were the soldiers of the Confederacy. In the case of the song Dixie it would appear that origins were of no consequence, context was paramount, and melody conquered all. Of course, context is relative. If taken literally, the song is a nostalgic celebration of southern culture. Except that it was intended by Emmet as a satirical take on slavery. The song is sung in the voice of a freedman who misses the plantation on which he was enslaved. Southerners didn’t get the joke. Or maybe they did, and the joke was on Dan Emmet.

Despite the subversive connotations, after it was quickly conscripted as an anthem of the Confederacy, Lincoln never quite lost his love for the song – it was just so damn catchy. He ordered it to be played when he was informed that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox. Or maybe that was just his way of rubbing Southern noses in their defeat. The speech he made at the time was typical of his wry sense of humour.

I thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard …  our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I       presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it

Which the band duly did. Certainly, Lincoln’s troops had no great affection or reverence for the piece. Union troops sang the song frequently, but with amended lyrics. These went …

Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators
Right away, come away, right away, come away.
Where cotton’s king and men are chattels

Union boys will win the battles,
Right away, come away, right away, come away

Emmet died in 1904. His gravestone bears the legend ‘his song Dixieland inspired the courage and devotion of the southern people and now thrills the hearts of a reunited nation.’ Which today comes across as someone optimistically ‘whistling Dixie’.

So, was that great anthem of the Confederacy written in the Old South? No, it wasn’t, it was written by a Yankee Irish-American. That’s fake history.