According to the most widely accepted account, Daniel Emmett wrote “Dixie” in 1859 when one of the owners of Bryant’s Minstrels asked him to work up a “walk-around.” Walk-arounds were one of the most popular parts of minstrel shows, and minstrel troupes were under constant pressure to develop new renditions. In a walk-around, one member of the cast would start singing and/or dancing with the other members seated in half-circle behind him. These other cast members would start out just beating time, but then one by one they would take their turn center-stage and sing a verse or dance a few steps.
It was the competitive nature of these walk-arounds that made them so popular. After a string of energetic, try-and-beat-this solos, the entire cast would leap to their feet for an all-dance finale.
Many music historians trace the walk-around to certain dances performed by American slaves on plantations where they had evolved from the communal religious dancing of West Africa. As such, the subject of many walk-arounds was slave life, and many of the songs’ narrators told stories that took place on a plantation. “Dixie” was written with that tradition in mind, and the song’s walk-around performance would not have been received as scandalously as it would be today.