Classic Essays

The True Story of “Dixie”

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 3.43.02 PMEDITOR’S NOTE: Music is perhaps the most accurate meter of the fire in the communal soul. When there is fervor, there are stirring marches and heart-wrenching ballads. When there is only propaganda, there is only Irving Berlin. Unfortunately, the best songs of America have grown out of its disunity, not its unity. The North was never closer together than in the Internecine War when troops were shouting “Mine eyes have seen the glory!” The south was never more unified when the words of “Dixie” were echoing through the Confederacy. The supreme irony, however, is that “Dixie” was the work of a Northern Irishman, and the music for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was composed by a Southerner. In the first of two articles on the subject we delve into the origins of “Dixie,” which, as noted in earlier Stirrings columns, has now been banned by several Southern bandmasters for fear of stirring up a racial Majority backfire. The article, written by a prominent professor of psychology, is reprinted with the permission of the fraternal organization in whose magazine it first appeared.

AS A psychologist and former bandsman (and incidentally a Hoosier who counts two Buckeye bluecoats in his ancestry), I am occasionally nettled by comic-serious public demonstrations and television protests spotlighting persons claiming to be offended by the singing and playing of the tune “Dixie” at athletic contests. Some particularly thin-skinned individuals object to “Dixie” rendered by bands on parade or in concert, even when the event is broadly patriotic and full of equal-time provisions for numbers like “Yankee Doodle,” “We Shall Overcome,” “America,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” and “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

It is probably safe to say that most people’s enjoyment of “Dixie” has nothing whatever to do with secret longings for a neo-slavocracy or the return of the invisible Empire. If the aggrieved parties knew a bit more musical Americana or were somewhat less inclined toward irrelevant confrontations, such flapdoodles might be laughed off or possibly sublimated into a larger vision.

It is well known that Daniel Decatur Emmett — native of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, tunesmith extraordinary, and sparkplug of Bryant’s Minstrels — composed the deathless words and music of “Dixie’s Land.” What is not common knowledge is that he scratched it out one drizzly Sunday in 1859 during a New York engagement. It was intended merely as a “walk-around” number for the troupe of burntcork comics. Emmett’s inspired “hooray” chorus probably derived from the plaintive remarks of the touring vaudevillians who yearned to trade Gotham’s cold climate for that green and pleasant land down South. Obviously, the lyrics of “Dixie” were unrelated to slavery, secession, or Southern militarism.

At its world premiere (on Monday, Apr. 4, 1859) the song was greeted with instant delight on the part of blasé New Yorkers. Early the following year P. P. Werlein and Mrs. John Wood introduced the catchy tune to New Orleans, queen city of the Creoles, whose French- and English-speaking inhabitants had long been trading in $10 banknotes, labeled DIX (meaning 10), which Americans everywhere quickly corrupted to “dixies.” The final link was forged in January 1861, when a popular music-hall team at the Variety Theater brought the house down with a stirring rendition of Uncle Dan’s keening showboat ditty, with its southern theme and blackface comedy style. So it was that Dame Fortune integrated “Dixie’s Land” and “land of the dixies.” Talk about the Mason-Dixon Line as the origin of “Dixie” is mostly fantasy. So is that yarn about the Manhattan planter named Dix.

In the wake of President Lincoln’s election, Southern secession and confederation, the inauguration of President Davis, and the tragedy of Fort Sumter, “Dixie” swept the land of cotton with its infectious syncopated rhythm and stirring melodic line. The official Confederate version heard in Montgomery on February 18, 1861 , was arranged and played by Bandmaster Herman Arnold, a German immigrant of 1852.

In this fashion “Dixie” became the property of the CSA, although the 3rd Michigan, the 22nd Massachusetts, and other Union regimental bands played it early in the war. Oh, a few stuffy Confederate literati tried to cosmetize the words of “Dixie”; dogface soldiers in blue and gray amused themselves with parodies of it; and serious Unionist lyrics were written in calculated attempts to recapture the feisty little tune for the North’s own legions.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 3.42.20 PM
In the sheet music for the most popular Northern war song, no mention was made of William Steffe, the South Carolinian who composed the music.

All to no avail. Emmett — the gifted composer who numbered “Jim Along Josey” and “Old K. Y. Kentucky” among his credits — had triumphed over everyone. “Dixie” was an all-time hit, and that’s all there was to it.

One of the perversities of the Civil War’s treatment of “Dixie’s Land” is that the only known lyrics that referred to slavery were penned by Northerners for a literary bomb called “Union Dixie.” The Confederate military version, by Brigadier General Albert Pike (more poet and lawyer than soldier), was strictly a patriotic call to arms in defense of the homeland.

Now I concede that “Dixie” may be as much a state of mind as a balmy region or an irrepressible tune. And a great Southern essayist once reminded us that ideas do have consequences. Well, if so, then “Dixie” is no ghost. In all its richness and pathos it still lives, and I think it quite improbable that such a national gem will ever yield to the censorship of anti-intellectuals or humanist poseurs.

Fads in musical repression come and go. Wagner was banned by those who hated Germany, Tchaikovsky by Russophobes, “Giovinezza” by anti-Fascists, and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” by Yankee General Butler. When the Great Emancipator delivered his closing request to the U.S. Marine Band on the night following General Lee’s surrender, he said to the leader: “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I’ve ever heard.” That night it gave Mr. Lincoln and a delirious crowd on the White House lawn much pleasure, as good music should.

Thus, at long last, minstrel man Dan Emmett’s prodigal song had rejoined the Union.

Lest we forget, Daniel Emmett was not just the composer of “Dixie” and dozens of other fine show tunes — he was also the founder of the first American minstrel troupe, the Virginia Minstrels (1843). An old Army bandsman, he was a versatile instrumentalist (drum, fife, banjo, flute, violin). After the Lee unpleasantness he served as an orchestra leader and violinist in Chicago variety theaters until retirement in 1888.

During the 1895-96 season, at the age of 80, Emmett made a farewell tour with Field’s Minstrels that turned into a triumphal march clear across Dixie’s Land . Needless to say, when the Father of American Minstrelsy was called on stage to lead audiences in several verses of ” Dixie,” the people were galvanized into action with joyful clapping, singing, and cheering. And when the ovations were done and it was all over, one could hear the keening Rebel Yell of wartime memory — that spine-chilling, unearthly “mingling of Indian whoop and wolf howl” that had hastened the demise of so many boys in blue. Yet here it was, thirty years after the stillness of Appomattox, being ennobled by the musical magic of a “Damn Yankee” deep in Dixie.

No wonder those proud Southerners loved Uncle Dan so much. His personal gift to them was an immortal piece of Americana, both regional and national in its appeal, a priceless legacy for all the people and for generations to come.

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Source: Instauration magazine, November 1976

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1 Comment

  1. aa
    May 30, 2015 at 5:47 pm — Reply

    The South conquered the universe with its music. In all the pages of history there is no distinct group of people who have done with music what the South has.

    The leviathan United States hates the Southern nation.

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