“What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?”
“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied, a little too quickly.
“Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.”
– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks have ditched the Confederate allusions in their names and become, respectively, Lady A and The Chicks.
The word ‘antebellum’ refers to the period before a war and commonly to the years preceding the US Civil War. It is often used in the phrase ‘antebellum South’ to refer to the Confederate states and to describe a style of architecture then popular in the region, particularly on plantations where slaves were worked. Given these connotations, it is no surprise the band chose to remove it from their name.
The change of appellation, however, has resulted in a conflict with the Seattle-based African American singer, Anita White, who has been using the name Lady A since the early 1980s, first as part of Lady A & The Baby Blues Funk Band and then in her ensuing solo career. Upon hearing about the change, Lady A (the singer) responded“It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them. If it did, they would’ve done some research.”; “now [they] want to take my professional name and brand.”; “I don’t even know how much I’ll have to spend to keep it.” In the American songwriter article, Paul Zollo wrote: “Given that the world knows what that A stands for, to many this change does little more than add extra insult to this ongoing injury.”
Lady A (the band) then apologised and the two parties held talks about co-existing. On receiving the contract offer from Lady A (the band), Lady A (the singer) said “I’m not happy about it. […] Their camp is trying to erase me.” She submitted a counteroffer that either the band would choose another name, or that she would change hers for a $5m fee plus a $5m split between Black Lives Matter, Seattle charities, and a legal defence fund for independent artists.
Lady A (the band) have now filed a lawsuit against Lady A (the singer), which, as Natalie Maynes of The Chicks has said, is ‘kind of going against the point of changing their name’. I would agree with Lady A (the singer): In an effort to eradicate the Confederate reference from the title, they have appropriated the name of a black singer, sued her to use it, and have retained the A as a reminder of what it used to stand for. The tokenism of the gesture implies they believe black lives matter but their actions suggest they think the voices of black musicians do not.
The word ‘Dixie’ also refers to the 11 states that comprised the Confederacy. The Dixie Chicks said they had wanted to change their name “years and years and years ago” but were finally roused to action after they saw someone on Instagram refer to the Confederate flag as “The Dixie Swastika”. Emily Strayer of The Chicks said she saw the image and thought “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” In contrast to Lady A, The Chicks also reached out to a New Zealand duo of the same name requesting permission to share the moniker and received their blessing. The group also removed the whole word rather than reducing it to an initial, but that may just be because a band called The D Chicks has other unwanted associations.
There were warnings that changes like this had been coming. The band Confederate Railroad were removed from the bill of the Ulster County and Du Quoin State Fairs in 2019, officially because they used the Confederate flag in their logo, but most likely because of their name’s link to the antebellum South. In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Danny Shirley espoused this view, saying he had no intention of changing the name and that the removal was because “You had one political blogger bring it up”.
The larger question in all this is why terms like ‘Dixie’, ‘Antebellum’ and ‘Confederate’, words associated with the side that lost the US Civil War, found their way into the names of bands in the first place. One answer is that the popular perception of what the words meant when the bands were formed has changed: Confederate Railroad are the oldest, starting out in 1987, The Dixie Chicks in 1989 and Lady Antebellum most recently in 2006.
You can trace the change in attitudes through the evolving perception of what the Confederate flag symbolises. The earliest nationwide poll to ask what the Confederate flag symbolised to the public was in 1992, when 69% of all Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride. The previous year, a poll of Southerners found that whites thought the flag was a symbol of Southern pride, while blacks thought it was a symbol of racism. As Shirley notes in the Rolling Stone interview, “To us, we were taught that [the Confederate] flag means you like the part of the country you come from.”
But times have changed since Shirley was taught. In June 2020, a poll found that 44% of Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride and 36% as a symbol of racism, while a separate survey the following month found that 56% saw it as a symbol of racism and 35% of Southern pride, with those from the South reflecting the national averages at 55% and 36%. Despite the considerable difference in responses, both show that recognition of the flag as primarily symbolising Southern pride has declined over the 30 years.
It is not known whether this change in understanding of what the Confederate flag, the Confederacy and associated terms signify will prove to be a continuing trend or simply a blip. I do not expect the defence of such things ever to entirely disappear: History may be written by the victors, but the self-delusions of the defeated have a tendency to persist.