Andrew C. A. Jampoler
I wish I was in de land of cotton
‘Simmon seed and sandy bottom
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.
In Dixie land, where 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 we’ll take our stand
To lib and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Daniel Decatur Emmett
“Dixie’s” remaining four verses went on to tell a story of an old missus’ foolish marriage to “Will de Weaber [weaver],” a gay deceiver, and her subsequent fatal illness (“Ole missus die—she took a decline/ her face was de color ob bacon rhine…”) that left to cunning Will and his next woman the old missus’ plantation. The song, as written accompanied by banjo, fiddle, bone castanets, and tambourine, was quickly wildly popular, first in the North and later in the South.
Dixie’s music and its lyrics were written by Daniel Emmett to be the closing, “walk ‘round,” song and shuffle in a new show by Bryant’s Minstrels, a troupe of musicians, singers, and comics who first “blacked-up” their faces and hands to play in front of audiences at Mechanics Hall in New York City several years before the Civil War. Bryant’s Minstrels, they modestly styled themselves as “The Excelsior Troupe of the World,” continued to play in the big hall, at 472½ Broadway between Grant and Broome Streets, through the war and until mid-1866. (In 1868, and then known as Butler’s American Theater, the place burned down—one of five theater and opera house fires that year in the United States. The blaze was a consequence, The New York Times reported on April 8, of some carelessness in the ladies’ dressing room.)
Minstrelsy was a great success in theaters in the North (less so in the South), and successful too as a distinctly American export overseas. English music halls were a natural venue, but so also, as it turned out, were deployed ships of the American navy. Squadron flagships often carried musicians but even on smaller men of war, where musicians were crewmen off watch, players got together to entertain themselves, the crew, and visitors with minstrel routines. And not just themselves, according to Brian Rouleau, in With Sails Whitening Every Sea. In 1853, he writes, USS Powhatan‘s and USS Peacock‘s “corps of Ethiopians” entertained their foreign hosts with minstrel shows while their squadron was in Tokyo Bay, trying to pry open Japan to American trade.
Emmett (1815-1904), originally from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, was in the late 1850’s the troupe’s songwriter and banjo player. A musician since his mid-teens, by the time he wrote “Dixie” Emmett had been writing, playing, and singing minstrel songs for some fifteen years, at least since February 1843. That’s when he and another pioneer of the form, fiddler Billy Whitlock, assembled a “novel, grotesque, original and surpassingly melodious Ethiopian Band” they named the “Virginia Minstrels.” Whitlock and Emmett promised audiences its shows would be “entirely exempt from the vulgarities and other objectionable features which have hitherto characterized negro extravaganzas.” Presumably that exemption was true of Bryant’s Minstrels, too, when they formed up in 1857.
Considering its profoundly racist nature, minstrelsy had a remarkably long run as an entertainment genre. Its DNA could have been found singing, dancing, and joking fully a century after its birth in Walt Disney’s animated movie, Song of the South, based on Joel Chandler Harris’ sixty year-old stories about Uncle Remus. The film has been locked away in the company’s vaults off and on for the last thirty years, and is generally available now only through bootleg copies.
Edward Rice’s encyclopedic Monarchs of Minstrelsy (Kenny Publishing Company, 1911) said that “Dixie” was sung at Mechanics Hall for the first time anywhere in September 1859, but Emmett’s biographer, Hans Nathan, later claimed its premier was actually in that Hall the previous April. Nathan was probably right about the date, a full two years before the beginning of the war. He cited a playbill as proof.
A more contemporary source on “Dixie,” Dan Emmett, and Bryant’s Minstrels is Hans Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press), published in 1962 to enthusiastic reviews. Dozens subsequently claimed the credit for writing “Dixie.” In 1993 Howard and Judith Sacks, both of Kenyon College, argued in Way Up North in Dixie (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press) that Emmett had learned the tune from two Black musicians living in Knox County, Ohio, the Snowden brothers.
Thanks to its catchy tune and despite its music hall lyrics in dialect, “Dixie” soon went on to become the informal but beloved national anthem of the Confederate States of America. Its unofficial change in status from Broadway theater ditty to anthem seemingly dates from February 18, 1861, when in Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was inaugurated the Confederacy’s provisional president. Marching near mid-day at the head of the parade that led Davis between the Exchange Hotel and the dais at the State Capitol, Bandmaster Herman Arnold had his Montgomery Theater Band play Emmett’s popular “Dixie.” They played the tune for a second time after Davis’ swearing-in and his short acceptance speech. And quickly after that, “Dixie” became much more than a song. It became the nickname of the new nation, and the sound track for a way of life worth preserving by going to war.
One solution to the problem of “Dixie’s” comic lyrics was to sing instead something uplifting and martial, substitute lines that could carry the heavy freight of patriotism expected of anthems in wartime. In 1861 Albert Pike (1809-1891, journalist, lawyer, adopted Arkansan, and very briefly a Confederate brigadier general) replaced “Dixie’s” original lyrics with phrases that sound today like a bad riff on “La Marseillaise,” with his first verse urging “Southrons, hear your country call you! / Up! Lest worse than death befall you…” and a chorus that repeated “To arms! To arms! / And conquer peace for Dixie…” twice. Another would-be lyricist, one H.S. Stanton, asked in a similar spirit, “Shall this boasting, mad invader / Trample Dixie and degrade her?” and replied (strewing exclamation points enthusiastically), “By our father’s proud example! / Southern soil they shall not trample! / Southrons meet them on the border! / Charge them into wild disorder!”
“Southrons” evidently didn’t think much of Pike’s or Stanton’s war songs. Their alternative lyrics never pushed Emmett’s original version out of their hearts. Even so, their lyrics were no worse than were Fanny Crosby’s, who at about the same time wrote “Dixie for the Union,” for the benefit of public school children in the North. Her first verse: “On! Ye patriots to the battle / Hear Ft. Moultrie’s cannon rattle / Then away, then away, then away to the fight! / Go meet those Southern traitors with iron will / and should your courage falter boys / Remember Bunker Hill. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! / The Stars and Stripes forever! / Hurrah! Hurrah! Our Union shall not sever!” And so on.
Another solution was somehow to find a suitably deep meaning concealed inside Emmett’s frivolous words, to find gravitas in his comedic rhymes. Such heft was already embedded there, claimed an anonymous lady correspondent published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on March 25, 1861. “Dixie’s” first verse was literal, she acknowledged, but after a close reading she insisted that Emmett’s second and subsequent stanzas were not a poem “lightly denounced as meaningless and absurd by unimaginative Submissionists and taunting Republicans” but “an allegorical prophecy.”
Although dimly understood even by their own author, how one could one fail to see, she asked the paper’s many readers, that in “Dixie’s” verses “an epitome is given of the events which, since last November, have shaken this land? The election of Lincoln, the decay and dismemberment of the United States, the threats of civil war, and the rise of a new power in the South, are all foretold, and even an invitation to join this nascent empire extended to the surrounding States!”
It’s fair to add that the Dispatch (then eleven years old and the most popular by far of antebellum Richmond’s five English language dailies; a sixth was published in German) wasn’t necessarily persuaded; it described her conclusions as “fanciful and ingenious.” Still, under publisher James Cowardin the non-partisan Dispatch became increasingly vocal in its support of slavery and secession through the 1850’s, and finding deep meaning in these seemingly frivolous lyrics might have fit the paper’s politics in 1861.
A better response to the problem than either Pike’s, Stanton’s, or the Dispatch’s imaginative correspondent’s turned out to be simple: to ignore all the original stanzas except the first and to focus on the chorus—and especially on the stirring couplet, “Den I wish I was in Dixie / Hooray, Hooray. In Dixie land we’ll take our stand / To lib and die in Dixie.” Still, the search for a more profound message to ride the music than a story of an old woman’s seduction continued for a long time. In 1905, when a joint committee of Confederate patriotic organizations met in Opelika, Alabama, to consider new words for “Dixie,” members had some twenty-two rival versions of its lyrics to consider.