A Brief History
On April 4, 1859, the familiar Southern anthem, “Dixie,” alternatively known as “Dixie Land,” “Dixie’s Land,” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” made its public debut performed by the blackface troupe Bryant’s Minstrels as the closing number of their show. Not only was the song first publicly performed in New York, a decidedly NOT city in Dixie, it was written by a guy from Ohio, another place North of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Mason-Dixon Line, the line symbolically separating the Northern from the Southern United States, dates back to a surveying job performed by surveyors named Charles Mason and Jerimiah Dixon delineating the borders between Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. North of the line is considered “The North,” and South of the line is what became known as Dixie or Dixieland, mainly due to the song at the heart of this article.
The song, both music and lyrics, was written by an Ohioan named Daniel Decatur Emmett (one of the many, many great people named Daniel) in 1859. Since Emmett took his own sweet time in having the song copyrighted, others surfaced claiming to have written the tune. A notable such claimant was the Snowden Family Band of Knox County, Ohio that is believed to have possibly collaborated in the writing of the song. Emmett served a stint in the Army before changing careers, first as a circus performer of banjo and singing (in blackface) and then to putting on performances of singing and dancing in the “blackface” genre, founding a troupe called the Virginia Minstrels. Despite the name of the troupe, the Virginia Minstrels performed in New York. Emmet later joined the Bryant’s Minstrels troupe, which performed his signature composition in 1859. Emmett died in 1904 at his Mt. Vernon, Ohio home at the age of 88. He did not marry until he was 65 years old, his bride a tender 50 year old.
(Note: The “blackface” style of performance where White people are made up to look like stereotypical people of African heritage and sing and dance in their concept of exaggerated African American mannerisms began about 1828 with the introduction of “Jim Crow,” a song and associated dance from that time, of course performed in blackface.)
The song quickly caught on with Southerners, and it became the de facto National Anthem of the South and the Confederate States of America. Emmett, not a Southern sympathizer, was quoted as saying, “If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d have written it.” An interesting side note is that Emmett rewrote the fife and drum manual for the US Army during the American Civil War. (He had learned to play the fife while in the Army as a young man.) President Lincoln was famously known to be a fan of the song and often had it played at his political events.
Funny thing about the song, “Dixie,” is that although it has been appropriated by White Southerners as a throwback to the Antebellum South, the song was actually meant to signify a formerly enslaved African American longing for his home in the South! Despite Emmett’s Northern origins, his song was a reflection of the sentiment that African slaves were “happier” and “better off” as slaves than as free men. (One wonders if Emmett or any other White people had actually asked any freed slaves about this supposed sentiment.)
Our topical song, “Dixie,” has had many iterations and variations on its lyrics and even its tempo. It has even been adapted as a gospel tune with different words and incorporated into other songs. (Note: The founder/owner of this website was born in Virginia.)
Daniel Emmett made his mark on American music with his signature song, as well as writing another several dozen tunes and the aforementioned fife and drum manual, as well as a privately produced book about fife and drum music. He is remembered well in his home town, with several places named in his honor. In 1970 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other tunes do you associate with the American South? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jones, John Bush. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South. LSU Press, 2015.
Wintermute, Ogden. Daniel Decatur Emmett. Heer Printing, 1955.
The featured image in this article, a wood engraving by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) of the songs of the war for Harper’s Weekly, Volume V (23 November 1861), pp. 744-745, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.