Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Way Down South in Dixie
- This line is a reference to location—Dixie is a colloquial term for the southern United States, but it's also a reference to the Confederate Army. During the Civil War, the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy's refrain and last line was "Away down south in Dixie."
- In that sense, we might expect to hear it from an old Southern man, yearning for the old glory days in Dixie, and not from a girl whose lover has just been brutally lynched by a mob of such Southern men. When heard from the girl's lips, the song that represented Southern pride to some becomes an indictment of Southern racism and violence. There's a deep sense of irony here, and it's pretty scathing.
- This line sets us up for the song-like nature of this poem. It has a sway and a swing. But this poem is so sad that the rhythm is bluesier than sing-song. If you're reading it aloud, try it slow, so that each word hangs on your tongue.
- Notice anything else? Shmoop does—the fact that this line has six syllables. We can't tell if there's any meter or rhyme yet, but you can bet we'll be keeping any eye out, especially since this poem is called a song.
(Break the heart of me)
- Throughout the poem, the second line of each stanza is in parentheses. This line repeats twice, here, in the first stanza, and again in the last stanza.
- Normally, when you see a parenthesis around something it means it's an aside. Whatever is hiding out in the parenthesis usually is just a little extra info for the readers.
- We don't think that this line is an extra at all, though. Instead, the parentheses seem to draw attention to the line, as if they're saying, look at me! Look at me! In a way, the parenthesis make the line seem even more important.
- That means we've got to pay extra close attention to what's going on here. Notice that the girl doesn't say "break my heart," or "it broke my heart," both of which would be kind of cliché. Instead, she uses the strange turn of phase—"Break the heart of me."
- In a way, it almost sounds like she's telling someone to break a heart. Then the "me" at the end of the line makes it really clear whose heart that is—hers.
- The phrasing of this line also gives the poem a bluesy rhythm and slow Down South feel. She's in no rush to make her point, but is singing about it slowly and sadly, beat by beat by bluesy beat.
- So, why would she put this in parentheses? Maybe it breaks her heart so much that she doesn't have the strength to say it plain; or maybe she intends it as an aside to go along with the first line, "Way Down South in Dixie," taking the anthem's joyous line and turning it into a lament.
- Either way, the parentheses make this line creep into our mind—we feel it, rather than read it.
- And who exactly is breaking her heart? Is she referring to Dixie? Did Dixie break her heart? That seems like a pretty good theory at this point.
They hung my black young lover
- Now we get to the meat, the event, of the poem. We find out why the dark girl's heart is broken, way down South: because her lover has been lynched.
- Well that'll break anyone's heart, right?
- Note the arrangement of this line: it reads "black young lover," rather than "young black lover," which puts emphasis on his color, not his age.
- She also doesn't accuse anyone specific of hanging her lover, just "they."
- What's up with that? It seems to suggest that society in general, or at least a large mob, lynched her husband. Maybe the racist Ku Klux Klan was involved, maybe it was just any old lynch mob, but the point here is plain.
- The blame in this poem is being taken by an ambiguous "they." There are multiple folks involved, and this girl might not even know who they actually are. She might never know.
To a cross roads tree.
- This line gives us a location more specific than the South. The lover is hung to a cross roads tree, or, at an intersection. So, this man is hung at a place where there are probably a lot of passers-by. We're guessing a crowd could easily gather there, to grieve and wonder about this man's fate, or to cheer on his death for the more bloodthirsty members of the mob.
- But, this line has a little something hidden, too. There is a space between the word "cross," and the word "road." Isn't crossroads normally one word?
- This makes us think of another person who was executed by an angry mob—Jesus. Though, as this line alludes to, Jesus hung from a cross, not a tree (but to be fair, the thing was made of wood). We'll see how Jesus comes to play in more obvious ways later in this poem.
- Finally, now that we've finished a stanza, this is a good place to check in with the form.
- Is there a meter here? Yes indeedy. Each line has (about) six syllables, which means that there are probably three stresses, or beats, in each line. That makes this puppy trimeter.
- Plus, we've got that rhyme—"tree" and "me." So as you read the rest of the poem, look for similar rhymes in the second and fourth lines of each stanza.