In a Nutshell
In a Nutshell
In 1859, the song that would come to be known as “Dixie” debuted in a New York theater. Written by a Northerner, the minstrel song told a meaningless little story about a slave’s “ol’ missus” and her husband “Will de weaber.” The dawn of the looming Civil War, however, turned this meaningless little ditty into a song loaded with meaning. As Southerners debated whether to withdraw from the Union, one line, in particular, hit home: “In Dixie Land I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” As a result, Southerners embraced the song as an anthem when they voted to secede. And when they marched off to war, their anthem became a battle cry.
The Civil War ended in 1865, yet “Dixie” remained a regional anthem in the South (even though many argue that “Dixie” was in fact a reference to a Manhattan slave owner of the 1820s). Many Southerners continue to sing the song in celebration of their distinctive history and culture. Yet for the same reason, the song offends many others. Since the 1960s, African American activists have protested the song’s playing at football games and other public events, arguing that it implicitly celebrates slavery and the racism underlying the institution.
It’s a complicated debate, largely because the song has a complicated history. Sure, Confederates sang it as they marched off to war, but an antislavery Northerner, Daniel Emmett, wrote it. It may have been played at the inauguration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, but Abraham Lincoln loved the song as well. The song’s humor may rest on a racist parody of black speech and behavior, but according to some scholars, Dan Emmett actually learned the song from neighboring African American musicians.
Believe us, it is a complicated song. And we ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
About the Song
|Artist||Daniel Decatur Emmett
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According to some accounts, Dan Emmett wrote “Dixie” in just a matter of hours. But the song was part of several long and important threads in American history. For starters, it was written for a minstrel show
, an embarrassing but also curious part of American cultural history. For decades, white middle-class audiences turned out to watch white men in blackface imitate and mock African Americans. Their stereotypical representations were racist and ugly. Yet some historians have argued that whites watched these performances with a certain degree of envious fascination.
The song quickly moved from the minstrel circuit to the political podium and then battlefield. Secessionists embraced the song as they called for withdrawal from the Union. In fact, “Dixie” became the South’s unofficial anthem. Yet Northerners loved the song as well and resisted Southern attempts to claim it. This battle over a song filled with racist imagery says something about similarities between the two sides battling in the Civil War
Finally, the song drew attention during 1960s as a new generation of civil right activists protested its performance at football games and other public events. Their protests called attention to the persisting problem of racism and the lingering examples of slavery and segregation in American life. Therefore, to really understand the importance of this song, you should read more about the Civil Rights movement
and the Jim Crow
laws that inspired it.
On the Charts
“Dixie” and its derivatives (“I Wish I Was In Dixie,” “Dixie’s Land,” “The War Song Of Dixie,” etc.) were among the most popular tunes in America—both the North and the South—for decades starting almost immediately following the song’s first performance. The Billboard Hot 100 chart didn’t exist yet, though, so it was difficult to keep track of just how popular a song was. Come to think of it, radio
didn’t exist yet, either, so the fact that everyone in the country could “whistle Dixie” was a testament to the song’s tremendous impact on the American people.
That doesn’t mean that “Dixie” has been completely absent from the charts, though. In 1972, Mickey Newbury and Elvis Presley both charted with recordings of Newbury’s “An American Trilogy,” a three-song medley that opened with lines from “Dixie.” Newbury’s version reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart; Elvis’s reached #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #31 on the Adult Contemporary chart.