The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #54140 Message #3332803
Posted By: Desert Dancer
02-Apr-12 - 09:17 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Dixie
Subject: RE: Origins: Dixie
In the New York Times series "Disunion", on the Civil War, Christian McWhirter ('an assistant editor for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and the author of "Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War"') gives a history of the song's adoption as an anthem of the South. (No mention of Hays.)
The Birth of 'Dixie'
New York Times
March 31, 2012
In a New York apartment on a rainy day in March 1859, Daniel Decatur Emmett sat down at his desk to write a song for his employer, Bryant's Minstrels, and its upcoming stage show. Then 44 years old, Emmett had been composing minstrel songs — to be performed primarily by white actors in blackface — since he was 15. Looking out his window at the dreary day outside, Emmett took his inspiration from the weather. A single line, "I wish I was in Dixie," echoed in his mind. Before long, it would echo across the country.
Few of us remember "Dixie" as antebellum America's last great minstrel song. We see it as most did two years after its creation — as the anthem of the Confederacy. And yet as phenomenally popular as it was the North before the war, "Dixie" was slow to catch on in the South. Lacking the Yankees' enthusiasm for minstrelsy, most Southerners were unaware of the tune until late 1860. By sheer chance of fate, its arrival coincided with the outbreak of secession. As newly minted Confederates rejected the anthems of their old nation, they desperately sought replacements.
Indeed, once it reached the South, "Dixie," despite being a song written by a Northerner, rose to prominence with exceptional speed. One songwriter recalled how it "spontaneously" became the Confederacy's anthem, and a British correspondent noted the "wild-fire rapidity" of its "spread over the whole South." The tune received an unofficial endorsement when it was played at Confederate President Jefferson Davis's inauguration in February 1861. This was coincidental — it was recommended to a Montgomery, Ala., bandleader who knew nothing of the tune — but "Dixie's" inclusion gave the appearance of presidential approval. The Confederate government never formally endorsed "Dixie," though Davis did own a music box that played the song and is rumored to have favored it as the South's anthem.
Repeated performances of "Dixie" by Confederates confirmed its new status. Even before Virginia seceded, the Richmond Dispatch labeled "Dixie" the "National Anthem of Secession," and the New York Times concurred a few months later, observing that the tune "has been the inspiring melody which the Southern people, by general consent, have adopted as their 'national air.'" Publishers recorded that sales were "altogether unprecedented" and, when Robert E. Lee sought a copy for his wife in the summer of 1861, he found none were left in all of Virginia.
"Dixie" became so connected so quickly with the South that many Americans attributed its very name to the region. In fact, the precise origin of the word "Dixie" remains unknown, though three competing theories persist. It either references a benevolent slaveholder named Dix (thus slaves wanting to return to "Dix's Land"), Louisiana (where $10 notes were sometimes called Dix notes), or — and most likely — the land below the Mason and Dixon's line (the slaveholding South). Regardless, Emmett's tune made it part of the national vocabulary. During the Civil War, soldiers, civilians and slaves frequently referred to the South as Dixie and considered Emmett's ditty the region's anthem.
This popularity is remarkable, as little about "Dixie" recommends it as a national anthem. The melody lacks gravitas, and only the first verse and chorus express anything approximating Southern nationalism:
I Wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not 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,
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.
The rest is unmistakably the work of a songwriter utilizing various minstrel clichés. "Dixie's" speaker is a slave who worries that his plantation mistress is being seduced into marrying "Will de Weaber," the "gay deceiber" who outlives her and inherits her plantation. Although the speaker expresses his desire to live in the South until he dies, the song provides little else to endear it to Confederate patriots.
Nevertheless, a sort of inertia pushed the song's reputation higher and higher in the Southern mind. Confederates performed "Dixie" enthusiastically and remained devoted to it even when an alternative anthem — Harry Macarthy's "Bonnie Blue Flag" — became available. The more Americans on both sides believed that "Dixie" was the Confederate anthem, the more it became so. This was especially true for soldiers, who were some of the first to embrace "Dixie" and increasingly associated it, amazingly, with sacrifices made for the war. For one Confederate surgeon, the song "brings to mind the memory of friends who loved it — friends, the light of whose lives were extinguished in blood, whose spirit were quenched in violence."
To be sure, many Southerners were well aware of "Dixie's" obvious deficiencies. Most simply ignored these problems, though some tried to reconcile them with the Confederacy's history and objectives. The Richmond Dispatch stretched its credibility attempting to prove that the song was a parable for secession. It argued that "Will de Weaber" was not a minstrel stereotype but, in fact, Abraham Lincoln, who seduced the nation into voting for him, leading to the South's rebirth as the Confederacy. To conclude the piece, the author triumphantly asked, "Can any one now fail to see that, in the verses of this deservedly popular song, an epitome is given of the events which, since last November, have shaken this land?" Emmett surely disagreed, as he reportedly declared that, had he known the Confederates would adopt "Dixie" as their anthem, "I will be damned if I'd have written it."
Other Southerners were more disturbed by "Dixie's" apparently undeserved status and sought more extreme solutions. Many rejected it outright. "It smells too strongly of the [negro] to assume a dignified rank of the National Song" declared one malcontent, while another argued it was "absurd to imagine that Dixie, a dancing; capering, rowdyish, bacchanalian negro air" could be sung by "a nation of free men … with any respect for themselves." Others recognized that most of the song's appeal came from its catchy melody and simply drafted new lyrics. Numerous such revisions appeared throughout the war but none achieved much success. Only one, by the Confederate Indian agent and general Albert Pike, enjoyed even a limited popularity and continues to appear occasionally in histories, songbooks and public performances.
Even Lincoln recognized the song's power and, at the end of the war, attempted to reclaim "Dixie" as an American, rather than Confederate, song. "Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted," he told a crowd of admirers in Washington, "that we fairly captured it."
Despite these efforts and the continued protestations of some Southerners, "Dixie" remained wedded to its Confederate identity. Although a simple minstrel ditty, 150 years of history have loaded the song with indelible political, racial, military and social connotations. For better or for worse, "Dixie" was the South's anthem, and will most likely remain so for generations.
Sources: Daniel Decatur Emmett, "Away Down South in Dixie," New York Clipper, April 6, 1872; Richard B. Harwell, "The Confederate Search for a National Song," Lincoln Herald, February 1950; "Three Months in the Confederate Army," Index, June 26, 1862; "Dixie Composer, On Visit to Birmingham, Tells How Famous War Song Was Written," Birmingham News, Nov. 2, 1924; "Quite a Novelty," Petersburg Daily Express, May 4, 1865; "The Enigma Solved," Richmond Dispatch, March 25 and May 11, 1861; "Songs for the South," New York Times, June 16, 1861; Robert E. Lee Jr., "Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee"; Hans Nathan, "Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy"; Daniel Decatur Emmett, "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land"; Junius Newport Bragg and Helen Bragg Gaughan, "Letters of a Confederate Surgeon, 1861-65″; T. C. De Leon, "Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the 60's"; Albert Pike and J. C. Vierick, "The War Song of Dixie"; Abraham Lincoln, "Response to Serenade," April 10, 1865.