In 1859, Bryant’s Minstrels needed to spice up their act. Their material was growing stale; audiences were tired of the same old song and dance. So the troupe owners asked one of the performers, Daniel Decatur Emmett, to put together a new “walk-around.” Walk-arounds were audience favorites, high-energy finales in which the cast members took turns trying to out-sing or dance the performer before them. Emmett accepted the assignment, and legend has it that within a day he had written “Dixie.”
The song was like many other minstrel show songs of the time. It was narrated by a Southern slave who told a tale about “Ole Missus” and her husband Will. The specifics of the tale were not important, though. In fact, if you read the lyrics today, it’s hard to understand why audiences found them so hilarious. But that’s because the humor in minstrel show songs had little to do with the words sung. Instead, audiences were entertained by the manner in which the song and dance routines were performed. In minstrel shows, white actors put on blackface by covering their faces with burnt cork and then talked, sang, and danced in a manner believed typical of African slaves.
These imitations were grotesque stereotypes, crude and racist. And “Dixie” was typical of the formula. Emmett’s narrator sang in the broken English believed typical of slaves (“Old Missus marry Will-de-weaber / Willium was a gay deceaber”), and the words suggested that slaves were fat and happy in their lives (“Dar's buck-wheat cakes an 'Ingen' batter, makes you fat or a little fatter”). Most important, the song suggested that, contrary to all the talk of reformers and abolitionists, slaves were not interested in trading slavery for freedom. Far from it, according to the song: they wished they were “in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!”
Despite what you may think, though, Dan Emmett was no friend of slavery—his father worked on the Underground Railroad. But that did not prevent him from writing a song aimed at tickling the same racist funny bone. Nor did it prevent Northern audiences from enjoying the song. In fact, shortly after it debuted at Mechanics’ Hall in New York City, the song became a national hit. By 1860, people throughout the country were “whistlin’ Dixie.”
But almost as quickly as “Dixie” became a hit, it was surrounded by controversy. Southern secessionists, intent on withdrawing from the Union now that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president, embraced the song as an anthem. Most of the lyrics were unimportant, but one line in particular resonated with their cause: “In Dixie Land I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” And so when South Carolinians met in a special convention to decide whether to withdraw from the Union, a band played “Dixie” every time a delegate voted in favor of secession. And two months later, when Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America, the band also played “Dixie.”
By the time the Civil War had commenced, “Dixie” was the Confederacy’s unofficial anthem. One Confederate officer, Lester Pike, even wrote a new set of lyrics, transforming the song into a battle cry:
Southrons, hear your Country call you
Up, lest worse than death befall you
To arms! To arms! To arms, in Dixie
It’s easy to see why Southerners believed it was their song. After all, the song’s setting was a Southern plantation. And “Dixie” was a common nickname for the South, although it’s not exactly clear why. Some believe the label may have come from ten-dollar bank notes circulated by a New Orleans bank. Referred to as “Dix”—French for ten—they were only accepted as payment for transactions in regions close to New Orleans. In other words, “Dixie Land” was that part of the Deep South that honored these notes as tender.
Others argue, however, that Dixie became another name for the South after Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon completed their survey in 1773, establishing the border between Pennsylvania and Virginia. Since slavery was soon abolished in Pennsylvania, the Mason-Dixon Line became the border between free and slave states.
Yet others have argued that “Dixie Land” was a paradise-like plantation owned by a generous Manhattan slave-owner named “Mr. Dix” (or in some places “Mr. Dixy” or “Mr. Dixie”) in the early part of the century, before slavery became illegal in New York in 1827. Allegedly rumors circulated around that time among slaves that he was a master so kind that his own slaves refused to leave or run away. Hence “Dixie Land” grew to be known as a place of refuge and happiness for slaves somewhere in the North.
War of the Words
However it originated, folks came to associate Dixie with the South, and “Dixie Land” became known as a distinctive region that had built its economy on slave labor and that stretched from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas. But that did not prevent Northerners from arguing that they had an equal claim on the song. After all, it had been written by a Northerner (Emmett was from Ohio) and debuted in a Northern city (New York was about as Union as it gets). Heck, even Abe Lincoln loved “Dixie;” he had used it regularly on whistle stops during his 1860 campaign. And so after Southerners adopted the song for their secession soundtrack, Northerner Francis J. Crosby answered with a set of pro-Union lyrics:
On! ye patriots to the battle
Hear Fort Moultrie's canon rattle
Then away, then away, then away to the fight!
Go meet those Southern Traitors with iron will
And should your courage falter boys
Remember Bunker Hill
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
The stars and stripes forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Our Union shall not sever!
In Crosby’s rendition, Northern soldiers were told that their battle against Southern rebellion was actually part of a larger war launched in 1775. Fort Moultrie was the Patriot fort outside Charleston, South Carolina, that had played such a dramatic role in the defense of the city against British invaders during the American Revolution. Now that South Carolina was the center of insurrection, Crosby urged Northern soldiers to remember these nation-founding battles—Fort Moultrie and Bunker Hill—and meet the Southern traitors with an iron will. They were fighting to preserve the Union that earlier Patriots had secured through revolution; if they adopted their forefathers’ courage, “our union shall not sever.”
In the end, the North won the musical battle as well as the military war. Shortly after announcing the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln ordered the band to strike up “Dixie.” The song, he said, had been “fairly captured.” While some few may say Lincoln had the song played as a way to rub in his victory, and others say that he told the band to play “Dixie” because he missed hearing it himself, most historians agree that it was in fact part of a broader political plan. Once the war was over, Lincoln wanted nothing more than the successful reunion of two American peoples ravaged by war. Having the band play “Dixie” was symbolic of his desire to bring the broken pieces of their great nation back together.
Just a Little Bit of History Repeating
But all of the controversy surrounding the song did not end when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Roughly a century later, “Dixie” excited a new set of arguments. This second round of debates began in the 1960s when African American students at Southern universities objected to the playing of “Dixie” at school events. The song was implicitly racist, they argued, rooted in the minstrel tradition that grotesquely mocked slaves and their degraded lives. And as the anthem of the Confederacy, the song represented the South’s attempts to retain several million African Americans in perpetual bondage.
Nonsense, answered the songs’ defenders; “Dixie” was just a harmless expression of Southern heritage. However it might have originated or been heard 100 years before, it had become nothing more than a celebration of the South, a proud and distinctive part of America. Banning “Dixie,” they said, was “political correctness” run wild, an overly sensitive reaction to an important expression of the South’s culture and history.
The argument was not restricted to college campuses. Several politicians joined the students in arguing that the song should be banned from public ceremonies, just as many countered that the song was a harmless piece of Americana. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist included “Dixie” on the song list for the sing-along he hosted every year at a legal conference.
So which is it? Is the song a racist and painful expression of past sins? Or is it an important piece of American history and culture, an expression of the “Old South” that can be sung without endorsing the attitudes that may have originally lain beneath it?
The debate continues to be waged today, and some of these questions are more easily answered than others. Despite 19th-century attempts to rewrite the song’s history, “Dixie” is not exactly a positive expression of the Old South. It was not written on some Southern porch, nor did it emerge from some ancient folk melody. It was written by a Northerner and first performed in a New York theater, and many historians argue that it was intended to be an ironic parody of Southern values, a joke at the plantation owners’ expense. But clearly the South had a different idea of what the song meant. It was not only set within Southern culture, it became an anthem as the Confederacy launched its war for separation from the Union (another reason it should no longer be celebrated, some say).
There’s no denying the racist tone of the old minstrel song. With its crude portrait of slaves and cheery view of slave life, the song celebrates rather than mourns a tragic part of American history. But on the other hand, the part of the song most commonly sung today is the refrain, which, in isolation, makes a more simple statement: “I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!”
Old Song, New Views
On top of all the other controversy surrounding “Dixie, recent research suggests that the song may be representative of a different legacy of racism: America’s failure for centuries to acknowledge all of the contributions to American life made by African Americans. According to some historians, Daniel Emmett did not actually write the song; they claim he learned “Dixie” from members of the Snowden Family Band, a group of African American performers that lived near his family farm in Ohio. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Emmett knew the Snowdens; in fact, later in his career he actually performed alongside them. And the Snowden family has long maintained that their ancestors wrote the famous minstrel hit, although no claims were made to this effect during Emmett’s lifetime.
Not every music historian has embraced this theory. In fact, most argue that the evidence is more circumstantial than verifiable. Yet the possibility serves as a reminder that African Americans’ contributions to our national culture were buried for centuries. And if ultimately proven true, the Snowdens’ authorship would provide yet another, albeit ironic, example of the enormous impact African Americans made not only on American music, but also Southern identity.
It seems as though we may be in the same place as we were 150 years ago in terms of the song’s place in American society. Is “Dixie” another reminder of America’s painful past that should be mourned rather than celebrated? Or is it an important expression of Southern culture that deserves to be honored and performed?
Ultimately, it’s for you to decide. In the meantime, you might begin by asking a different set of questions. What sort of historical artifact is the song? What does it tell us about American culture and the ways in which 19th-century Americans composed and used music? What does it say about American popular entertainment and both Northern and Southern audiences? What does the song say about its composer, a Northerner and son of an abolitionist? What does it say about Abe Lincoln? And what might it say about the Snowdens and other African American families like them? To play or not to play “Dixie”—somehow that is still the question.