MSU history professor discusses ‘ironic history,’ use of popular Confederate folk song
By Carly Pippin, Summer Intern for the College of Arts & Sciences
Joseph M. Thompson, a Mississippi State University assistant professor in the Department of History, shares the backstory of “Good Old Rebel”—a song written by Confederate veteran Innes Randolph—in his latest work featured in Project Muse, an online collaboration between libraries, publishers and worldwide scholars. Thompson’s article, “The ‘Good Old Rebel’ at the Heart of the Radical Right,” outlines the ironic popularity and circulation of the folk song by ex-Confederates and their supporters.
Thompson argues that using Randolph’s lyrics are ironic because people have misinterpreted the author’s intent for the last 155 years. He claims that while the bitterness over the Confederate defeat in the Civil War is real, the song also is a satire about the political views held by lower-class whites after the defeat.
The opening lyric states: “Oh, I’m a good old Rebel, / Now that’s just what I am; / For this ‘fair Land of Freedom’ / I do not care a damn.” It includes a stanza sharing the speaker's hatred for the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. flag, as well as their hatred for “Yankees” and the North.
“Three hundred thousand Yankees / Is stiff in Southern dust; / We got three hundred thousand / Before they conquered us. / They died of Southern fever / And Southern steel and shot; / I wish it was three millions / Instead of what we got.”
Thompson’s article, published originally in 2020 in the journal Southern Cultures, begins by describing the origin of misinterpretation surrounding the verses. It started with a Georgia newspaper, the “Daily Constitutionalist,” which was the first to publish “Good Old Rebel.” The newspaper printed the lyrics on July 4, 1867 and referenced an existing folk song so readers would know what melody to sing with the words.
“The paper did not include an author attribution, but given the first-person perspective, the unpolished vernacular, and the tone, it appeared that a recalcitrant Confederate veteran had penned the lyrics. This anonymous author seemed to cling to his identity as an unrepentant traitor who twists failed rebellion into victimhood,” Thompson explained in the article.
Thompson’s article points to the voice of a Confederate veteran sharing their feelings of hatred for America’s founding documents and a desire to kill more Union soldiers on the Fourth of July. On a day to celebrate independence and freedom, those that sang this song were dreaming of a time when thousands of humans were in enslaved and considered property, he shared in the article.
However, Thompson's research revealed that Randolph never intended for his work to become their anthem. But, his joke was taken seriously by the people he mocked, and it spread as a folk song among ex-Confederates and their sympathizers.
“The irony is that ‘Good Old Rebel’ is not real—not exactly. ‘Good Old Rebel’ started as a joke. Innes Randolph, a journalist, poet, and descendant of a prominent Virginia family, wrote those words, born partly out of his experiences as a Confederate soldier and partly as a means to lampoon poorly educated, working-class white southerners,” Thompson said.
“The fact that ‘Good Old Rebel’ blurred the line between satire and sincerity so well meant that generations of audiences found malleability within the song’s meaning. Some have taken the lyrics to heart. Some hear the song as a curiosity that seems too over-the-top to be serious,” he said.
Since 1867, the song has been adapted, reinterpreted, and played at events like political rallies, and online videos have garnered “hundreds of thousands of plays.” Thompson shares several current YouTube videos where people singing or playing the song seem to find validation for their feelings and beliefs through the words.
Thompson lists many artists that have covered the song such as Hoyt Axton and the South Memphis String Band. Even President Franklin Roosevelt claimed to have enjoyed the song during trips to his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. The song has also been featured in movies like “Run of the Arrow” and “The Long Riders”—films that tell stories of rebellion during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
He ends the article wondering if people will cling to the song as white supremacists and other factions of the radical right have embraced anti-government views remarkably similar to the “Good Old Rebel.”
“My hope is that my research makes people aware of the role that culture has played––and continues to play––in perpetuating some of the most dangerous ideologies that threaten our country today. I wrote and published this piece before the January 6, 2021 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, but I couldn’t help but think of the ‘Good Old Rebel’ as rioters waved the Confederate battle flag in the halls of Congress,” Thompson said.
He concludes with a warning: “as activists, local governments, and other institutions rightly remove Confederate memorials from the physical and cultural landscapes, ‘Good Old Rebel’ may find even more listeners who long for the imaginary South of the Lost Cause and take up arms in its defense. Or, maybe this is all overblown. After all, this is just a song. A joke. Surely, no one hates the Constitution? No one really wants to refight the Civil War, right? Right?”