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by Randy Hill

If it really came down to brass tacks, if all the icons and symbols of the South, all the folkways and traditions, everything tangible and intangible, were considered, then maybe only that lovely, lyrical, second person plural pronoun “y’all” . . . and those delicious black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day . . . could approach the level of special identification and endearment to the Southern heart as does the song “Dixie’s Land” -- nowadays affectionately shortened to just plain “Dixie.”



We Southerners don’t like to be reminded of it, but in the literal confines of historical fact, Dixie is not a Southern song.

In fact, Dixie was written by a Northerner who later even stated that, if he had known it would become almost exclusively Southern, he would never have penned it. To add insult to injury to the "hell, no, I ain't fergitten" faction amongst us, the song first became a hit above the Mason-Dixon line and, in the early stages of the War, many Union regimental bands struck it up frequently.

BUT this is one area where few Southerners would consider themselves strict-contructionists. When Dixie made its debut in Dixie, its popularity took the region by storm. Branding itself eternally on the mantlepiece of Southern hearts, it achieved an immortality rarely equaled in American musical history.

As a synonym for the South and a song title, the origination of the word “Dixie” is lost to the speculations of the generations. Its earliest recorded use in print was in an 1850’s play titled United States Mail and Dixie in Difficulty, and a version popular in the north says it began with the slaves of a Manhatten Island man whose surname was “Dix.” According to the legend, he was forced to sell them south, and ever after they spoke wistfully of “Dix’s Land.”

Still another guess is that “Dixie” was slang used among black Americans to refer to the area south of the Mason-Dixon line. The most accepted theory, however, traces it to a $10 currency circulated in New Orleans during the early 1800’s, upon which was printed the French term “Dix.” Locals supposedly referred to them as “Dixes,” and from there the term gradually came to mean the city itself and, eventually, the entire South.

Regardless of which, if any, of the versions are correct, tradition and best evidence has it that this most beloved of (later, at least!) Southern songs was not written early on one frosty morning but late upon one rainy night, to be precise, in New York City by yankee born Daniel Decatur Emmett for use in a minstrel show.

Emmett was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on October 29, 1815, and was already a composer of consequence when he wrote what would become his signature song and enduring legacy. After prior years of traveling, singing, playing, and writing music in the northeastern United States and England (his most well-known piece to date being Old Dan Tucker), he came back to New York and, in 1858, joined the "Dan Bryant Minstrels." One good story goes that things were up and down success-wise and, after a rather dismal performance on a Saturday night, Bryant, manager of the troupe, asked Emmett (the latter being the premier writer and choreographer of the bunch) to compose something new that would liven things up a bit, something catchy and full of the stuff that would compel audiences to take it away and whistle a while. He needed it by Monday.

Continuing the saga, it is said that Emmett's wife, Catherine, came into the kitchen in the still owl-hooting hours of Sunday morning to see her bleary-eyed spouse sitting at the table over pen and paper, trying to come up with something, anything, to fit the bill. The night was drizzly and miserable, and, upon noticing her entrance, he remarked, "What a morning! I wish I was in Dixie." She inquired as to what her husband meant by that expression, one she had heard him and other "show people" use before. In turn, he explained it was a metaphor for being (as in Down South where things are fair and sunny weather-wise) in a place where all is going well. At that moment, he later told a reporter, "I jumped up and sat down at the table to work. In less than an hour I had the first verse and chorus"

And so, in the wee hours of a soggy April night in 1859, Emmett put together the words and music to Dixie as a “walk around,” a musical feature where performers marched over the stage as a finale to the main segments.

Dixie’s Broadway debut on April 4 of that year became part of a show titled Planation Songs and Dance/Dixie’s Land, involving solo and group vocals, along with instrumental accompaniment. The song became an immediate hit and the talk of the town -- and before too long, a standard of minstrels all over the country. (Under the heading I Wish I Was in Dixie Land, Emmett, for the only monetary compensation he would ever receive for his masterpiece, sold the tune to a New York firm for the grand total of five-hundred dollars!)

It is said that Dixie was first played in the South in Charleston, South Carolina, during December, 1860, the month of that state’s seccession from the Union. However, it was in New Orleans that the song, as part of Pocahontas, at the Varities Theatre, in March of 1861, where 40 female Zouves, performing a drill under the direction of one Carlo Patti, dancing in lively step, ignited a firestorm that could not be extinguished. Patti had personally selected the routine (later published by P.P. Werlein of New Orleans*) and from that moment on it was all she wrote. The audience went wild, cheering madly, singing along deliriously, with no less than seven encores demanded, and like sparks slung from a whirlwind, Dixie spread across the South as enthusiastic crowds picked it up and took it west to Texas, north to Arkansas and Tennessee, and east to Virginia and Florida and all points in between.

What was so catchy about Dixie was, as one critic put it, its “blend of incisiveness and exhilaration giving force to (its lyrics).” Henry Hoetze, a Confederate agent in London, once asked in a letter to a contemporary, “What spell is there in the wild strain that it should be made to betoken the stern determination of a nation resolved to achieve its independence?”

That wild strain? Where did it come from? Emmett was reported to have told a friend that it was taken from an old English “ditty” he recalled from his youth, titled Come, Philanderer. (“Come, philanderer, let’s be marchin’ . . . Everyone for his true love sarchin . . .”). And just as enigmatic is his original song script, which is -- like the term “Dixie” itself -- lost in time and mysteries. A pity, as the first stanza of the tune has historically been the focal point of some speculation among musical historians.

The July 26, 1913, issue of Literary Digest contained what was claimed to be a photograph of Emmett’s original composition, wherein the following constituted the opening lines:

I wish I was in de land of cotton

'simmon seed and sandy bottom

However, somewhat better evidence says that the actual first stanza was, after Emmett's composition was presented to Bryant for approval, scratched out at the last minute by the latter's own wife for fear it might upset the deeply religious in the audience. And thus, although Emmett was said to sometimes include it in souvenir copies, it was never used. According to this particular tale, the first lines of the well-known version today actually constituted the second verse initially but, by default, moved to top spot after Mrs. Bryant’s copy-editing. The possibly blasphemous lines went:

Dis worl' was made in jiss six days,
An' finished up in various ways;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land!
Dey den made Dixie trim and nice,
But Adam called it "paradise,"
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land!

Over the years, various other composers and historians have attempted to jump Emmett’s claim to Dixie. The most recent was the subject of a book written by Howard and Judith Sacks titled Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem. The authors allege that a black family named Snowden, from Emmett's hometown, came up with the song and taught it to him during visits to relatives nearby. Another asserted, shortly after Emmett’s death, that the song was actually written by Harry McCarthy, an Irish born songwriter who was renowned as the composer of The Bonnie Blue Flag. (It is important to note that McCarthy never made that claim himself, although it is interesting that his own undisputed work became, next to Dixie, the most popular tune in the wartime South).

And yet one more inconoclast, in 1902, maintained the song had actually been the brain-child of two clerks (Charles Ward and Will S. Hays) who were employed by a Louisville music publisher. Bottom line is, however, none of these disputations are supported by the existence of any printed copies or written references which predates the publication of Emmett’s version in 1859. To wit:

I wish I was in 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, Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
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.
Old Missus marry Will-de-weaber,
Willium was a gay deceaber; Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
But when he put his arms around 'er
He smiled as fierce as a forty-pounder,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

His face was sharp as a butcher's cleaber,
But dat did not seem to greab 'er;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
Old Missus acted the foolish part,
And died for a man dat broke her heart,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

Now here's a health to the next old Missus,
And all the gals dat want to kiss us;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
But if you want to drive 'way sorrow,
Come and hear dis song to-morrow,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

Dar's buckwheat cakes an' Injun batter,
Makes you fat or a little fatter;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
Den hoe it down and scratch your grabble,
To Dixie's land I'm bound to trabble,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.


* P. P. Werlien had gotten hold of a northern copy of Dixie before the performance in New Orleans and had at least attempted to write to Emmett asking for copyright permission in the newly formed Confederate States of America. When war came, however, and no answer was received, he decided not to tarry, publishing the song sans any royalties to its composer.

There's more!

Note from Randy Hill: This article and those that will follow are derived from varied sources, ranging from obscure volumes in the local college library to internet web sites which looked impressive. So far as historical accuracy is concerned, much of the content is indisputable. However, as some of the above noted sources contradict one another in certain aspects, I often use such qualifications as "story goes" and "some claim" and so on. The bottom line is, so much folklore and mystery and legend surrounds all the details of Dixie's orgins and inspirations, that my own mediocre piece cannot be taken as anything more than an honest attempt to hit the good notes of the same based on what I felt was best evidenced and best supported. But be that as it may, I hope your enjoyment of the reading is at least a fraction of the enjoyment I had writing this. And may you continue to love that grand old song with all your Southern hearts.


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