“Dixie,” the Unofficial National Anthem of a Lost Confederacy

By Meg Sutter ’16

"Sheet music from the 1900s for 'Dixie,' showing four singers in blackface," Wikipedia Commons.
“Sheet music from the 1900s for “Dixie”, showing four singers in blackface,” Wikipedia Commons.

This post is the second part in a series on Civil War music. [Read part 1 of the series.]

Many Americans are familiar with the tune “Dixie’s Land” as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite the song’s ties to the Confederacy, it is still a popular tune even today. Some, like poet and critic Babette Deutsch in the 1920s, have even argued that it is more popular than the “Star Spangled Banner.” Deutsch writes that “the national anthem never is sung with the same hearty joy and strong emotion with which an audience, even of Northerners, greets [‘Dixie’].” Deutsch’s early twentieth century interpretation of this phenomenon is very likely dependent on the era in which she wrote it, but even today there are those in the South who rally for “Dixie” more than for the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Yet despite the song’s popularity, it seems that the majority of the American public is not aware of the long and somewhat unexpected history of “Dixie.” Even of those who know “Dixie” was actually written by a Northerner, how many are aware of its origins as a minstrel song functioning to draw comedic attention to the role of black slaves on Southern plantations? “Dixie’s” history has largely been obscured by time and the Lost Cause, and so it is significant not only to note the complex history of the tune, but also to raise questions about why such a song became the most popular rally cry of the Confederacy in the first place.

In the 1850s minstrel shows arose as one of the most popular types of American entertainment. White men—and increasingly in the postwar period, black men—performed songs and dances in blackface as comedic and bluntly racist facsimiles of black slaves. It is significant to note how neatly “Dixie” fits into the Lost Cause mythology with its suggestion that black slaves were content with their lives on the plantations of the South. For a white public for whom black culture was very much foreign, these minstrel shows sometimes functioned as a warped form of cultural education. The lyrics were often sung in crude imitation of African American Vernacular English and pegged as “Ethiopian tunes” or “plantation melodies.” Additionally, minstrel songs are said to have been influenced by African musical traditions such as the call and response format and emphasis on rhythm, although the degree of influence is debated by scholars such as Richard Crawford. From the minstrel tradition arose such songs as “Old Dan Tucker” and “De Camptown Races” that are still known today, and composers like Stephen Foster and Daniel Emmett, the latter of whom is responsible for “Dixie.”

Daniel Emmett would seem at first glance to be an unlikely writer of what would become the first unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. Emmett was raised in the North after his birth in Mount Vernon, Ohio on 29 October 1815. Emmett would go on to be heavily influenced by Stephen Foster’s success in the minstrel business, organizing his first minstrel troupe, the Virginia Minstrels, in 1843 and rising to prominence through his songwriting. In 1857 he was hired as the songwriter for the Bryant’s Minstrels, by whose request he composed a walk-around in 1859, a type of dance that became known as “Dixie.” What began as a ditty of the North and even Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song would eventually be transformed into the anthem of the South. Because most southerners were not aware of the song’s origins, it quickly became adopted as the Confederacy’s first unofficial anthem after its use at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, “Dixie” began its metamorphosis. McWhirter quotes the Richmond Dispatch as claiming “Dixie” as belonging to the South “by right of seizure, as do the forts, the arsenals, the mints.” Confederate regimental bands embraced the song as a rallying tune played on the march and in camp, simple enough for any common soldier or civilian to sing or march to. The first verse with the chorus appeared as follows:

            I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
            Old times dar amnot forgotten
            Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
            In Dixie Land whar I was born in,
            Early on one frosty mornin’,
            Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

             Den I wish I was in Dixie,
            Hooray! Hooray!
            In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
            To lib and die in Dixie,
            Away, away, away down south in Dixie,
            Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

There are multiple versions of “Dixie” lyrics, including the Union Dixie and Confederate versions that reimagined the song as a more political rallying cry, as with the substitution of the original lyrics “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand/ To lib and die in Dixie” with the more ardently nationalist version, “For Dixie’s Land we take our stand/ And live or die for Dixie.”

After the conclusion of the war, Abraham Lincoln hosted a jubilation dance at which he requested that the band play “Dixie.” Now that the divisive war was over, argued Lincoln, it was only appropriate that the North reclaim his favorite tune. Yet “Dixie” would never again be considered a Northern tune, and the legacy of Confederate nationalism and Southern pride cling to it still. Perhaps in part because Southerners did not realize the origins of their unofficial Confederate anthem during the war, the memory of “Dixie” still lives on in myth.


Sources:

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Deutsch, Babette. “America in the Arts.” Musical Quarterly, 7 (1921), 307. Quoted in George F. Rehin, “The Darker Image: American Negro Minstrelsy Through the Historian’s Lens,” Journal of American Studies 9 no. 3 (Dec., 1975): 366. Accessed September 29, 2014. .

McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Second South Carolina String Band. “Dixie’s Land” by Daniel Emmett. In Southern Soldier, 1997.

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