Whitewashing American History: A Review of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede

My friend Joan Stack recently visited Branson, Missouri with her family, where they attended a dinner performance at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. She posted this review on facebook, and has graciously allowed me to cross-post it here. Dr. Stack is Curator of Art Collections at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.

 

A massive, plantation style façade houses Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede theater/arena near downtown Branson. My daughter and I park and join a long line that meanders past two dozen or more stables housing magnificent horses. Dolly Parton songs play over the sound system as numerous voice overs inform us that photography is not permitted in the arena. We step into the foyer, as hostesses dressed as Southern belles greet us. We pick up two tickets in the “South” section.

We enter the darkened arena and hear crickets chirping and frogs croaking. The noise evokes the sounds of a Southern summer evening. A backdrop depicts a two-storied white plantation façade surrounded by shade trees draped in Spanish moss. Although such a house undoubtedly would have belonged to a wealthy slave-owning family, no imagery or rhetoric acknowledges that slavery was an integral aspect of antebellum Southern life. The show starts as the emcee enters, wearing a red rhinestone cowboy outfit. He introduces the program as a “journey back to a rivalry that has been going on for years” between the Northern and Southern sections of the United States. At this point the two sides march into the arena in mock battle formations. The Union enters first to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” The Confederates join them as the band plays “Dixie.”

Both male and female performers wear satiny quasi military uniforms, the North in blue trimmed with yellow and the South in grey and red. We see no controversial Confederate flags, only pennants of blue and gray. After the foot “soldiers” arrive, the faux “cavalry” rides in, circling the arena. The leading riders (the generals?) wear gloves that reflect stereotypes related to the North and South. The Unionists sport sleek black patent leather, while the Southerners wear fringed gauntlets of tan buckskin. After the two rival “armies” depart, the emcee discusses the origins of the conflict with symbolic landscapes, characters and animals. He links the antebellum era to an amorphous concept of America’s “never ending quest for freedom,” announcing that before there was the North or the South there was “the West.”

The backdrop suddenly changes to a Southwestern, desert landscape featuring dramatic rocky buttes. Dry ice fills the arena and a small herd of buffalo stampedes into the arena. The bison proceed to roll around in the dust. These iconic American animals soon depart and the emcee informs us that the West was untamed until man arrived. The sound system blares Dolly Parton’s song about the Cherokee (a tribe from the Smokey Mountain region of Dolly’s birth, not the desert southwest, although many were infamously relocated to Oklahoma). A single figure appears on foot with two riders on brown and white painted horses. The riders depart and the emcee speaks of the mystical exoticism of the natives and their world of “magic.” With these words a flying white dove (not a bird usually associated with Indians) suddenly “appears” from the folds of the Natives clothing. The arena darkens. A black light illuminates the Indian’s costume, decorated with glowing Southwestern designs. A harnessed female acrobat joins him in a thunderbird costume. After an acrobatic aerial performance, the two native dancers depart.

The emcee announces that the Native American world was disrupted by settlers. A “stampede” of longhorn cattle represents an interesting domestic parallel for the buffalo that appeared earlier. As the longhorns depart, men and women in rugged prairie costumes ride in, some driving wagons. The “settlers” vastly outnumber the lonely “Indians” who appeared earlier, an unspoken reflection of their eventual “triumph” in the West. The presence of both men and women signals the permanence of their settlements, but no reference is made to the genocidal violence that eventually decimated America’s Indian population.

The wagons surround a campfire, and goods in wooden boxes suggest the growth of commerce. Fiddle music begins, and the settlers begin to dance. The men perform athletic jigs by the campfire and the girls shout, “Don’t forget us!” further emphasizing the importance of their domesticating presence. The boys enter the audience’s space, dancing on the tables directly in front of spectators. The raucous intimacy of this performance implicates spectators in the mythic history. The emcee announces that it is “dinnertime,” and a song about the joys of dinner begins. This song is an extension of the settlers dance, suggesting that we are complicit participants in the settlement of the West. Waiters dressed in stylized Confederate and Union uniforms serve chicken, corn on the cob, and sweet tea to the audience, and we proceed to “chow down.”

After a short intermission, the emcee introduces the “traditions” of the North and South by speaking of the celebrated aspects of both regions. The North is described as a region characterized by great cities and “Lady Liberty herself.” The traditions of the “South,” on the other hand, are “performed,” an aspect of the program that, like the backdrop and show title suggest a privileging of the Confederacy over the Union. The old South is compared to a “fairy tale,” as Southern belles in hooped skirts twirl on a floating gazebo, their dresses lighting up as they spin. Beneath them, a Southern “gentleman” rides in, wearing a white suit illuminated with fairy lights. His horse begins walking sideways in an elegant “dressage” performance that ends with the animal “bowing” to the audience. Slaves are excluded from this idealized vision of Southern bliss.

Finally the competition begins. First representatives of both teams engage in a barrel race. After this, audience members join the cast, as pigs and chickens decked in blue and gray race each other for bragging rights. The pigs’ names relate to war heroes on both sides, “Ulysses S. Grunt,” “Robert E. Lean,” and “Abraham Bacon.” Selected members of the audience toss toilet seats in a modified horse-shoe contest, and cast members race Union and Confederate ostriches around the arena. This bizarre and trivialized representation of a conflict that left over 600,000 dead finishes as one side is declared the winner. The two teams re-enter the arena dressed in red, white, and blue. A video of Dolly Parton strikes a reconcilliationist tone, as the singer croons that she “bleeds red, white, and blue.” The American flag is transformed into an emblem of both sides, which are each lauded as patriotic and noble.

While the ultimate causes of the war are obliquely alluded to in the part of the show that showcases the West, the issues of national unity and the extension of slavery that made the West contested territory are never addressed. Nevertheless, “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede” is interesting because it makes a sanitized, symbolic Civil War the focus of an exhibition about white Americans understanding of themselves. I came away thinking the show represented the mythic history of white America rather accurately. Even the “white washing” of the bigotry, violence, and turmoil entailed in the extermination of the Indians and the enslavement of black people accurately reflects the nation’s difficulties in confronting these issues. The audience for the show I attended was 95% white, and I wonder how African American and Indian spectators might have responded to this extravaganza.

5 thoughts on “Whitewashing American History: A Review of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede

  1. I am appalled beyond words. Every time I think it can’t get worse it does. This is a neatly packaged, very sanitized and utterly useless depiction of history (word used really lightly) that exists for one purpose: the separation of money from people who have no clue of American history. I’m sure they wouldn’t want real history to bother anyone’s dinner such as the whipping of slaves, the sounds of chains and the crowd at the auction block. If it was real history the reek of blood would have filled the theatre from the people that died in that war. That’s why we keep having stupid wars. People forget what a real war is and then the ones that want to start a new one have no clue as to what is involved.

  2. Jimmy, you are so right about the disturbing aspects of the commoditization of the Civil War, although I am not quite so negative about the “Dixie Stampede.” I was rather amused and bemused by the whole thing. I must admit that there was an element of raw spectacle, especially in the “stampedes” of the buffalo and longhorn cattle, that was quite powerful. Also, as a pageant reflective of American mythology (rather than straight history), the show was rather informative. If one wanted to help a non-citizen understand how much of America views its cultural history, a visit to the Dixie Stampede might be rather enlightening!

  3. Joan, take a breath, please. Dixie Stampede never attempts or claims to be an accurate or comprehensive depiction of history. It is a spectacle, and it succeeds wonderfully in that effort. The purpose is to inspire not guilt or shame on the part of its white viewers but pride and patriotism in all its viewers. No one denies that racism and violence are part of our history; this show chooses to celebrate the land and the people that we are proud of instead of the atrocities we are not proud of. The media give us plenty of violence/racism/shame, but people come to a show to escape–to enjoy the spectacle and not to be lectured. Dixie Stampede exists to entertain, not to educate.

  4. Thanks so much Coco! Please know that I had fun at the Dixie Stampede and brought my daughter along! I am a Missourian with Texas roots, so the celebration of Southern culture is familiar and attractive to me. I am also a scholar of art and culture, and I loved the way the Dixie Stampede reflects the centuries old pageant traditions . Of course people don’t go movies or art museums to be lectured, and I would never post my thoughts on the historical meaning of the spectacle on Trip Adviser. Likewise most Trip Adviser visitors would not go to a blog exploring history for a their reviews! As you see from my reply to Mr. Dick above, I don’t advocate a change in the program, and as an art historian, I certainly don’t think artistic or theatrical products should be “accurate or comprehensive depictions of history!” I study artworks, drama and film as historical artifacts in their own right and I think the “Dixie Stampede” is a wonderful and fascinating reflection of 21st-century American culture. My review was not a critique of the entertainment value of the show. Instead it was written only for those interested in the complex ways American history is remembered in contemporary culture.

  5. I agree with Coco’s comments. It’s lighthearted entertainment — a modern wild west show — and it ends with Dolly singing about peace and brotherhood. I’m a northerner who hates racism and I enjoyed the show.

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