“Dixie” was one of the most popular songs to have emerged in the United States during the 19th century. As all roads began leading to the Civil War, “Dixie” reinforced and strengthened the identity of the South. However, this was not intention of the song’s composer who was a loyal Unionist and, reportedly, disgusted by its southern popularity.
Daniel Emmett was born and raised in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Musically inclined, he taught himself to play the fiddle at a young age. After a brief stint in the Army (was discharged after they found out he had falsified his age to enlist), he traveled with circus bands. It was there he realized his knack of impersonations, especially of African-Americans. Emmett began performing in blackface with his fiddle in minstrels.
In 1859, Emmett composed “Dixie” while with the Bryant’s Minstrels. It was performed for the first time while touring the south. The song incorporated much of the traditions of African-American song and dance. As the Civil War approached, the South identified strongly with the tune. So much so that “Dixie” was used in the campaign against Abraham Lincoln’s presidency run. Interestingly, Lincoln also used it during his own campaign and at his inauguration in 1861. “Dixie” was also played during Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as President of the Confederacy.
Both the North and the South viewed the meaning of the song differently. The North saw “Dixie” as anti-slavery song that prompted action against the system. Publishers in the North tried to rewrite some of the words in order to support its cause and gave it such titles as “Dixie Unionized.” However, the original tune withheld these changes and the new ones never caught on. The South used “Dixie” as its unofficial anthem and battle cry. The words, such as the chorus (“In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie”), substantiated their feelings and the length they would go to protect their land and beliefs. The American Social History Project explains the possible reasons the South identified so strongly to “Dixie”:
Its text, like the closing “walk arounds” from other minstrel shows, pictured the South as a happy land bathed in rural nostalgia, an appealing contrast, perhaps, to the urban squalor of New York, not to mention its cold winter weather.
Some have stated that “Dixie” was played during General Pickett’s ill-fated charge at Gettysburg as well as when the South surrendered. It was one of Lincoln’s favorite tunes and he had the White House band play it to support the reunification of the country. A few days before his assassination, Lincoln said of the song, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. . . .”
Since the Civil War, “Dixie” has been synonymous to mean the South. Something Emmett, a staunch Unionist, would not have liked. Regardless, he created a song that withstood the years. However, he was never able to capitalized on it since he sold all rights to a publisher for $500. He was also late in copyrighting the song. Many other minstrel groups and performers used it without giving him the due credit as the creator. Many people have come forward, claiming they invented “Dixie” instead of Emmett. Four years after his death in 1904, over 37 people claimed “Dixie” was actually their own.
The video is of the 1916 rendition of Dixie by the Metropolitan Mixed Chorus with Ada Jones and Billy Murray.
“Daniel Decatur Emmett,” Songwriters Hall of Fame
American Social History Project
Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival