by Randy Hill
It may well have been one of the highest tributes ever committed to the pages of a contemporary fiction novel when author James Michener described a modern day community gathering in the East Texas town of Jefferson. In a magnificent narration of a scene almost certainly based on fact, he wrote:
I attended a school house lecture entitled "The Heritage of Robert E. Lee," and at the end the chairlady said, voice throbbing with emotion, 'now if we will all stand, please' and with her hand over her heart, she led the singing:
I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Feverently we sang of a glory none of us had ever known, but whose legends were etched on our hearts forever, and when we reached that marvelous chorus, one of the most powerful ever written, I was shouting with the others:
In Dixieland I'll take my stand,
To live and die in Dixie,
Away, Away, Away down South in Dixie.
When the song ended, with some of us wiping our eyes, I said to the man next to me, "If a bugle sounded now, half of this crowd would march north."
"Yep" he said, "and this time we'd whup 'em."
PART III: Away Down South In Dixie!
They had fought the good fight, but the South had lost the War. Yet the worst was still to come. The vindictiveness and hardships of Reconstruction imparted a sour after-taste in Southern memories that would eclipse that of the conflict itself, leaving, as one source put it, a legacy of grief and bitterness that exists in part still today.
Relegated in many instances to the status of conquered subjects, private citizens found even the singing of Dixie an arbitrarily punishable offense by federal authorities in certain areas of the vanquished states of the former Confederacy. BUT . . . just as a gold coin possesses an intrinsic worth apart from any monetary standard set by government, so could no edict hope to suppress Dixie's popularity, whether it was sung as a party-tune, a nostalgic lament, or (as was often the case) an anthem of pride and defiance. And so when Reconstruction finally ended, Dixie would emerge unscathed and deeply etched into Southern, and even American, culture. In fact -- reminiscent of the early War years -- an occasional desire to write new lyrics would flare up (and most often die out just as quickly).
In any event, The Confederate Veteran magazine (a publication closely associated with the three societies) began a campaign in 1915 to adopt words of a more dignified sort -- a rationale strikingly similar to those of earlier days -- and set the song up with an air of Southern glory and patriotism "more in the spirit of the Confederacy." But the vast majority of the veterans and their sons and daughters of the time apparently had little desire to discard Daniel Decatur Emmett's original, and the matter was finally dropped. *
But not all the changes suggested in the lyrics were of Southern dimension. In a little known tidbit which could potentially have had benefit or consequence on a much larger stage, the tune was once actually submitted for consideration as the official national anthem of the United States of America! This came about in 1917 when, lacking such, an earnest endeavor to adopt a national anthem began. Suggestions poured in from all over the country, and one woman, a certain Mary Lowe Woods Orvis, put forth the idea that the following words be adopted and set to the music of Dixie.
As time marched on, Dixie would enter the "pop" culture as defined, and hardly could Emmett have foreseen that one day he and his magnum opus would become the star in a medium his own generation could not have imagined existing. In 1943, Paramount Pictures produced a film (appropriately titled Dixie), starring Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, the plot of which was ostensibly a "biography" of the famed musician's life as it led up to his composition and performance of the song. Although highly fictionalized as a life story, the final scene, which devoted itself to Dixie's original Southern debut in New Orleans in 1861, brought together a masterful mix of vocals and instrumentation, encapsulating a vision of what history would record as an event of near riotous proportions!
And, of course, there aren't many true Southerners who cannot recall the opening segments of Gone With the Wind, and the scrolling words accompanied by a haunting and hymn-like rendition of Dixie:
Dixie would also manage a place in the wide world of sports. Although, interestingly enough, like the song itself, football had northern origins, it wasn't long before it became a regional obsession in the South, with high school and college teams from Virginia to Texas adopting the "Rebel" mascot and taking to using Dixie as a fight song (although, sadly, certain sensitivities in the modern-age would lead to dropping both from the rosters in many locales).
Country music and the genre known as "Southern Rock" are perhaps Dixie's most undiluted public haven, with sampler plates including the full length (Lee Greenwood), theme-oriented (Johnny Horton, Dwight Yokum, and Lynn Anderson), or as musical effect (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama, and Hank Williams, Jr.)
And when done slowly and mournfully, any Southern-listening audience may be moved to shed the type of tears that comes when music taps into the essence of the heart.
A true Siren's call, Dixie’s lyrics and tune combine such an exquisite blend of the simple and sublime that it is its own excuse for being. And the highest praise the song can be given will not be found in the written or spoken word . . . but in its unsurpassed appeal to mass emotion. And so, reader, listen for a minute, will you?
Born in the heart of the Deep South, the singer's first name would become the most recognized in musical history. It all began in Tupelo, Mississippi, then on to Memphis, Tennessee. His signature song fit him as perfectly as did his jewel studded jumpsuits. The song premiered live in 1973 as an "aloha" from Hawaii and then, in 1977, at his final concert, before the stage lights faded forever, it was the last song the King would ever sing. ***
In an emotionally packed rendition evocative of roots and melancholy and a proud history, from there to eternity, his incredible, unforgettable voice would almost caress the opening lyrics . . .
*An autographed facsimile of the first edition of Dixie (published by Firth, Pond and Co. in New York) appears in September, 1895 edition of THE CONFEDERATE VETERAN.
**Emmett died on June 28, 1904, and DIXIE was played at his funeral.
***The song, "An American Trilogy," featuring blends of Dixie, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and All My Trials, originally composed by singer and songwriter Mickey Newberry, made the charts in 1972. One year later, Elvis Presley came out with the more well-known, dramatic, and orchestrated version which would become forever linked to his legacy.
Read PART II of DIXIE!
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