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." Although, rumors have definitely flown about Emmett poaching the tune from an African-American family.
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 dancing with the other members seated in a half-circle behind him. These other cast members would start out just beating time, but then one by one, they'd 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.
So, 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 wouldn't have been received as scandalously as it would be today.
Most agree that Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote "Dixie," but there's far less certainty as to when and why the South acquired this label.
The most popular theory is that the term was derived from the Mason-Dixon Line. Surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon established this line in 1773 as the boundary between Pennsylvania and Virginia. At that time, slavery was legal in both Pennsylvania and Virginia, but the institution was far weaker in Pennsylvania and facing increasing opposition.
In 1780, Pennsylvania adopted a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery, and as a result, the Mason- Dixon Line became the line separating free and slave states.
A second theory traces the term to a Louisiana bank that issued ten-dollar bank notes commonly referred to as "Dix," which is French for "ten." Like most bank notes of this period, these Dix notes were only accepted as payment within a limited geographic area. People in New York wouldn't accept a note that had been printed in distant New Orleans. So, "Dixie Land" referred to the geographic reach of these bank notes.
Perhaps the most intriguing theory links the label to a mythic Manhattan plantation-owner of the early 19th century by the name of Mr. Dixie. Legend has it that slaves were so kindly treated on his plantations that even after they were freed, they dreamed of returning to "Dixie Land."
Because "Dixie" had more than one life, it had more than one setting.
As a Confederate anthem, it was set within the politics of secession and the Civil War.
As a Northern response, it was set among famous battles linking the Civil War to the American Revolution.
As a minstrel tune, however, written by a Northerner and originally performed in Northern cities, the song was set within the imagined world of the plantation South. Many Northerners joined Southerners in constructing a falsely-benign portrait of slavery and life within this brutal labor system.
The sad fact is that abolitionists were never more than a small minority within the Northern public. Even though many Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery northward, they weren't necessarily interested in abolishing the institution in the South. To a great extent this was because they accepted the Southern representation of slavery.
As explained within the most powerful defense of slavery, The Sociology for the South, written by George Fitzhugh in 1854, slavery protected Africans from the harsh conditions of life in the North. Fitzhugh described Africans as child-like and docile, no more intelligent than 12-year-olds. If freed, they'd be outwitted in the competitive conditions of the labor market, but as slaves, they were offered homes and care and instructed in the soul-saving teachings of Christianity.
Others felt that God himself would end slavery when the time was right, once white Americans had helped to progress their African-American slaves past the savage and Godless states from whence they originated. It was in this way that many Christians were able to reconcile slavery with their religious beliefs.
"Dixie," like most minstrel songs, reinforced this portrait of African Americans and slavery. They were portrayed as foolish and ignorant, yet mindlessly happy within their lives as slaves, and it was seen as a boon that the white man was willing to make productive use of their lives regardless of their shortcomings.
As terrible as that sounds to Americans today, that was the world into which "Dixie" was born.