We don’t know who either of the men are, but for the sake of our discussion, let’s call them “Dwight” and “the old rebel.” We don’t really even know that the rebel is old except that he has “old blue eyes.” The bottle has aged him and the streets have ravaged him—in fact, have ravaged him to the point of death. Dwight, there in time for the old rebel’s “dying breath,” tries to comfort his passing with a tearful rendition of “Dixie.”
That’s the premise of Dwight Yoakam’s 1988 song “I Sang Dixie,” the second release from his album Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. The song reached #1 on Billboard’s country charts, and in 2019, Rolling Stone placed it as #26 on its list off the “40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time.”
I’m a big Dwight Yoakam fan, but to be honest, I hadn’t heard that song in maybe ten years. It just hadn’t shuffled up on iTunes, I guess. But the other day, it did, and “I Sang Dixie” quickly earwormed itself into my head. As I’ve sung it to myself—over and over, with intentional twang—and re-listened to it, I’ve wondered how well the song has held up over the last thirty-three years.
In the song, Dwight (as we’re calling the narrator) seems to have found the old rebel on a sidewalk somewhere in Los Angeles—“this damned old L.A. street,” as the old rebel curses it.
This must be Yoakam, the songwriter, giving voice to something he probably pondered himself at some point. Early in his career, after giving the “urban cowboy” sound a try in Nashville in the late 70s, he moved to southern California where his style of honky tonk meshed well with what he later characterized as “the Bakersfield Sound” typified by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. He gained traction, releasing his first album in 1986. It went double-platinum, but in the lean times and the good times, L.A. can offer different kinds of troubles.
The old rebel, as he damns the L.A. streets, conjures a time “way down yonder in the land of cotton” where “old times there ain’t near as rotten” as they are are in L.A. “Don’t you see what life here has done to me?” the old rebel asks.
Those turn out to be his final words. He closes his old blue eyes and falls limp against Dwight’s side. “No more pain,” Dwight sings. “Now he’s safe back home in Dixie.” Elsewhere, Dwight urges the Lord to place take the old rebel’s soul “back home to Dixie,” and the old rebel himself urges Dwight to “run back home to that Southern land.”
In both instances, Dixie means “home” and stands for an idealized paradise. In one case, that means the South; in the other, it’s heaven. From the song’s perspective, they’re one and the same.
Dixie—as a concept—has an additional patina of nostalgia glossing it, too, because the old rebel is dying. The grass was not greener on L.A.’s side of the fence, he discovered the hard way, and he longs for the green, green grass of home. While it’s too late for him, he urges Dwight to “listen to me, son, while you still can.” Run—don’t walk, don’t mosey, don’t take your good sweet time about it—back home.
This urgency is juxtaposed against the casual disregard people on the sidewalk show for the little human drama playing out. “People just walked on by as I cried,” Dwight sings. This isn’t any different than any other stretch of sidewalk on any given day where people walk by the homeless and pretend not to notice them.
But there’s symbolism built into the interaction, too. After all, Dwight is singing “Dixie” as the old rebel dies—and people still just walk on by. They are among the uninitiated, for surely if any of them knew what they were hearing, they would understand and stop and be moved. If you’re not in the “Dixie” club, then you don’t get it.
The song “Dixie” evokes an old South filled with old bearded men in white suits who all went by the name “Colonel” (Dwight Yoakam, originally from Kentucky, knew the image well.) Good old boys, never meanin’ no harm, tried to catch the eyes of young belles. Magnolias and moonlight abound. And if there are any black people, they’re happy, loyal servants—not a slave in sight.
In Yoakam’s 1988 song, Dwight (the narrator) evokes a similar romanticized Dixie by not only singing “Dixie” but by also making comforting comparisons to home and heaven. Many people today still conjure up similar nostalgic images.
But that perception of Dixie, once widespread, has undergone a significant change in the last thirty-three years (and particularly in the last six). With its underpinnings of racial violence built on slavery, Dixie was hardly the idyllic haven for everyone who lived there. Members of the Dixie club today balk when that part of the picture—left out for a century and a half—gets mentioned (and I’m sure there are readers who just went, “Aw, why’d you have to go and spoil this piece by bringing up slavery and racism?”).
I think this adds an extra element of lament to Yoakam’s song. The very premise that originally made the song so sad is, itself, dying. Those who still think of Dixie in that romanticized way are mourning its loss; everyone else just walks on by.
All that aside, I still think Dwight Yoakam’s “I Sang Dixie” is a fantastic song.
Take a listen: