Nov. 11, 2002
"Dixie" -- a song strongly identified with the South -- stirs emotion and exposes timeworn rifts across American society.
It has been that way almost since "Dixie" was born in the days just before the Civil War. Adopted as a Confederate anthem, it was offered up by President Abraham Lincoln as a gesture of reconciliation after the war. It's accepted with affection by many whites and scorned by many blacks. And yet it's been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Robert Shaw chorale.
A search for the origins of the song prompts a gentler debate, but one that touches many of the same themes. NPR's Cynthia Johnston sought to sort out the story of "Dixie" for NPR's ongoing Present at the Creation
series on Morning Edition
The song that provokes such contrasting responses also has more than one version of its creation.
Authorship is credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, who was a member of a group called Bryant's Minstrels. But some believe "Dixie" was really a tune passed on to Emmett by a pair of African-American brothers born to parents who were slaves.
Emmett wrote such early American standards as "Turkey in the Straw" and "Blue-Tail Fly." Johnston reports that in 1859, while Emmett was living and performing in New York City, he was asked to write a new song. "Dixie" was the result. A hit in New York, it caught on across the country within a year.
"Dixie" wasn't meant to be serious. It was a minstrel tune, performed in blackface. But as war divided the nation, a song initially embraced by all sorts of Americans -- including the man trying to preserve the union -- became more and more identified with the South.
By 1862, the region had become popularly known as "Dixie," though a variety of elements apart from the song may have influenced the nickname.
Despite its prompt association with the southern cause, "Dixie" remained one of President Lincoln's favorite tunes. Historian Cheryl Thurber says the very day the South surrendered, Lincoln asked a band to play "Dixie" for crowds gathered outside the White House.
To many African-Americans, "Dixie" is a symbol of racism and slavery. Thomasina Neely-Chandler, an ethnomusicologist and music professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, says the important thing to remember is that "Dixie" is a harmful misrepresentation of blacks.
"It's not the song or the text," Neely-Chandler says, "So much as how it's used in a
distorted way to present a particular people with an image that really
doesn't represent them."
In the years after the Civil War, "Dixie" was embraced by whites, but increasingly rejected by blacks. The divide over the song deepened during the early days of the civil rights movement.
"[Blacks] would sing a song like "We Shall Overcome" or "The Battle Hymn of
the Republic," University of Mississippi historian Charles Reagan Wilson says. "But then opponents of integration and black rights would sing 'Dixie' as a kind of counter-song asserting white privilege and white supremacy."
So the possibility that Emmett learned "Dixie" from Ben and Lew Snowden -- a pair of black musicians he knew from his hometown -- carries its own irony. The Snowdens' parents had been slaves in Maryland, but by the 1820s were living outside Mount Vernon, Ohio, not far from where Dan Emmett's family lived.
Judith Sacks and her husband Howard, a professor of sociology at Kenyon
College in nearby Gambier, Ohio, wrote a book on the song's history called Way Up North In
. They say the Snowdens were well-known musicians who gave concerts from a
converted gable on the side of their house. The Sackses advance the theory that the song
"Dixie" is a childhood recollection from Mrs. Ellen Snowden, the mother of Ben and Lew.
Judith and Howard Sacks acknowledge they have no explicit proof for their assertion, and many scholars are skeptical, including Cheryl Thurber.
"Emmett did know the family," Thurber says. "He performed with them. But that
was in the 1890s" -- long after "Dixie" appeared.
Thurber does believe that the lyrics of "Dixie" embody a "slave idea of paradise."
"This was an imaginary paradise," Thurber says, perhaps associated with a community of runaway slaves. "Certainly the concept is one that Emmett did adopt from African-American slaves."
Musician Mike Petee helped this year's crowd at Mount Vernon's Dan Emmett festival imagine how Emmett might have been inspired to write the tune.
"It's New York City... It's rainy, it's cold," Petee said. "And what minstrels loved to do was tour the north during the summer and in the winter they want to go down south. So he's in the
north, it's cold, it's dreary, his thoughts go to Dixie, where he wants to be."
Beyond the differing theories of its origin and the quarrels over its symbolism, it's clear to Vanderbilt University music historian Dale Cockrell why it became so popular and enduring.
"The song's music is of undeniable infectious quality," Cockrell says. "It's
anthem-like. It's in 4/4 so it's a kind of propulsive march-like dance rhythm. One can hardly help but be affected just by the musical quality of it."
A lot of people still wish they could hear "Dixie." But it's rarely sung in public anymore.
One way latter-day performers try to make it acceptable is to combine it with other tunes that acknowledge its complex history. Jazz singer Rene Marie combined it with
Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit" -- a vivid depiction of a lynching. Elvis Presley's American trilogy mixes "Dixie" with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the spiritual "All My Trials."
Howard Sacks believes "Dixie" retains a quintessential American quality:
"What it tells us is that black, white, male female,
southern, northern, slave, free, urban rural -- these aren't separate
realms," Sacks says. "The story of the American experience is the story of movement
between these realms.
"Understanding the creation and re-creation of "Dixie" is that story encapsulated in the words and music of a single song."
Read about another historic song featured in the Present at the Creation
series: "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Read an 1893 letter to the Richmond Dispatch
on the origins of "Dixie"
Read a biography of Daniel Decatur Emmett
The Ohio Historical Society has a collection of photographs of Ben and Lou Snowden
See a copy of the original sheet music
for "Dixie's Land" at Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
Read a Washington Post
article on the uproar Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist caused when he led a sing-along of "Dixie"
at a Virginia judicial conference.
Learn more about the history of minstrels
and view exhibits
Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem
, by Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks (Smithsonian Institution Press, out of print)