Most sources credit Ohio-born Daniel Decatur Emmett with the song's composition; however many other people have claimed to have composed "Dixie", even during Emmett's lifetime. Compounding the problem of definitively establishing the song's authorship are Emmett's own confused accounts of its writing, and his tardiness in having "Dixie" copyrighted. The latest challenge has come on behalf of the Snowden Family of Knox County, Ohio, who may have collaborated with Emmett to write "Dixie".
The song originated in the blackface minstrel show of the 1850s and quickly grew famous across the United States. Its lyrics, written in a comic, exaggerated version of African American Vernacular English, tell the story of a freed black slave pining for the plantation of his birth. During the American Civil War, "Dixie" was adopted as a de facto anthem of the Confederacy. New versions appeared at this time that more explicitly tied the song to the events of the Civil War. Since the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement, many have identified the lyrics of the song with the iconography and ideology of the Old South. Today, "Dixie" is sometimes considered offensive, and its critics link the act of singing it to sympathy for the concept of slavery in the American South. Its supporters, on the other hand, view it as a legitimate aspect of Southern culture and heritage and the campaigns against it as political correctness and even cultural genocide.
The song was traditionally played at a slower tempo than most listeners are familiar with today. Rhythmically, the music is "characterized by a heavy, nonchalant, inelegant strut", and is in duple meter, which makes it suitable for both dancing and marching. "Dixie" employs a single rhythmic motive (two sixteenth note pickups followed by a longer note), which is integrated into long, melodic phrases. The melodic content consists primarily of arpeggiations of the tonic triad, firmly establishing the major tonality. The melody of the chorus emulates natural inflections of the voice (particularly on the word "away"), and may account for some of the song's popularity.
According to musicologist Hans Nathan, "Dixie" resembles other material that Dan Emmett wrote for Bryant's Minstrels, and in writing it, the composer drew on a number of earlier works. The first part of the song is anticipated by other Emmett compositions, including "De Wild Goose-Nation" (1844), itself a derivative of "Gumbo Chaff" (1830s) and ultimately an 18th-century English song called "Bow Wow Wow". The second part is probably related to even older material, most likely Scottish folk songs. The chorus follows portions of "Johnny Roach", an Emmett piece from earlier in 1859.
As with other blackface material, performances of "Dixie" were accompanied by dancing. The song is a walkaround, which originally began with a few minstrels acting out the lyrics, only to be joined by the rest of the company (a dozen or so individuals for the Bryants). According to a musician named Oscar Coon, Bryant's Minstrels performed a jig to "Dixie" called Beans of Albany. This is probably Albany Beef, the Scots-Irish dance that Emmett refers to in a book on fife instruction. Dancers probably performed between verses, and a single dancer used the fiddle solo at the end of the song to "strut, twirl his cane, or mustache, and perhaps slyly wink at a girl on the front row.
Countless lyrical variants of "Dixie" exist, but the version attributed to Dan Emmett and its variations are the most popular. Emmett's lyrics as they were originally intended reflect the mood of the United States in the late 1850s toward growing abolitionist sentiment. The song presented the point of view, common to minstrelsy at the time, that slavery was overall a positive institution. The pining slave had been used in minstrel tunes since the early 1850s, including Emmett's "I Ain't Got Time to Tarry" and "Johnny Roach". The fact that "Dixie" and its precursors are dance tunes only further made light of the subject. In short, "Dixie" made the case, more strongly than any previous minstrel tune had, that slaves belonged in bondage. This was accomplished through the song's protagonist, who, in comic black dialect, implies that despite his freedom, he is homesick for the plantation of his birth:
The remaining verses drift into the common minstrel idiom of a comical plantation scenario, "supposedly [depicting] the gayer side of life for slaves on Southern plantations":
The final verse mixes nonsense and dance steps with the freed-slave scenario:
The lyrics use many common phrases found in minstrel tunes of the day—"I wish I was in . . ." dates to at least "Clare de Kitchen" (early 1830s), and "Away down south in . . ." appears in many more songs, including Emmett's "I'm Gwine ober de Mountain" (1843). The second stanza clearly echoes "Gumbo Chaff" from the 1830s: "Den Missus she did marry Big Bill de weaver / Soon she found out he was a gay deceiver. The final stanza rewords portions of Emmett's own "De Wild Goose-Nation": "De tarapin he thot it was time for to trabble / He screw aron his tail and begin to scratch grabble. Even the phrase "Dixie's land" had been used in Emmett's "Johnny Roach" and "I Ain't Got Time to Tarry", both first performed earlier in 1859.
As with other minstrel material, "Dixie" entered common circulation among blackface performers, and many of them added their own verses or altered the song in other ways. Emmett himself adopted the tune for a pseudo-African American spiritual in the 1870s or 1880s. The chorus changed to:
Both Union and Confederate composers produced war versions of the song during the American Civil War. These variants standardized the spelling and made the song more militant, replacing the slave scenario with specific references to the conflict or to Northern or Southern pride. This Confederate verse by Albert Pike is representative:
"The New Dixie!: The True 'Dixie' for Northern Singers" takes a different approach, turning the original song on its head:
Soldiers on both sides wrote endless parody versions of the song. Often these discussed the banalities of camp life: "Pork and cabbage in the pot, / It goes in cold and comes out hot," or, "Vinegar put right on red beet, / It makes them always fit to eat". Others were more nonsensical: "Way down South in the fields of cotton, / Vinegar shoes and paper stockings".
Aside from its being rendered in standard English, the chorus was the only section not regularly altered, even for parodies. The first verse and chorus, in non-dialect form, are the best-known portions of the song today:
According to tradition, Ohio-born minstrel show composer Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote "Dixie" around 1859. Over his lifetime, Emmett often recounted the story of its composition, and details vary with each account. For example, in various versions of the story, Emmett claimed to have written "Dixie" in a few minutes, in a single night, and over a few days. An 1872 edition of The New York Clipper provides one of the earliest accounts, claiming that on a Saturday night shortly after Emmett had been taken on as songwriter for the Bryant's Minstrels, Jerry Bryant told him they would need a new walkaround by the following Monday. By this account, Emmett shut himself inside his New York flat and wrote the song that Sunday evening.
Other details emerge in later accounts. In one, Emmett claimed that "Suddenly, . . . I jumped up and sat down at the table to work. In less than an hour I had the first verse and chorus. After that it was easy. In another version, Emmett stared out at the rainy evening and thought, "I wish I was in Dixie." Then, "Like a flash the thought suggested the first line of the walk-around, and a little later the minstrel, fiddle in hand, was working out the melody (a different story has it that Emmett's wife uttered the famous line). Yet another variant, dated to 1903, further changes the details: "I was standing by the window, gazing out at the drizzly, raw day, and the old circus feeling came over me. I hummed the old refrain, 'I wish I was in Dixie,' and the inspiration struck me. I took my pen and in ten minutes had written the first verses with music. The remaining verses were easy. In his final years, Emmett even claimed to have written the song years before he had moved to New York. A Washington Post article supports this, giving a composition date of 1843.
Emmett published "Dixie" (under the title "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land") on 21 June 1860 through Firth, Pond & Co. in New York. The original manuscript has been lost; extant copies were made during Emmett's retirement, starting in the 1890s. Emmett's tardiness in copyrighting the song allowed it to proliferate among other minstrel groups and variety show performers. Rival editions and variations multiplied in songbooks, newspapers and broadsides. The earliest of these that is known today is a copyrighted edition for piano from the John Church Company of Cincinnati, published on 26 June 1860. Other publishers attributed completely made-up composers with the song: "Jerry Blossom" and "Dixie, Jr.", among others. The most serious of these challenges during Emmett's lifetime came from Southerner William Shakespeare Hays; this claimant attempted to prove his allegations through a Southern historical society, but he died before they could produce any conclusive evidence.. By 1908, four years after Emmett's death, no fewer than 37 people had claimed the song as theirs.
"Dixie" is the only song Emmett ever claimed to have written in a burst of inspiration, and analysis of Emmett's notes and writings shows "a meticulous copyist, [who] spent countless hours collecting and composing songs and sayings for the minstrel stage . . . ; little evidence was left for the improvisational moment. The New York Clipper wrote in 1872 that "[Emmett's] claim to authorship of 'Dixie' was and is still disputed, both in and out of the minstrel profession. Emmett himself said, "Show people generally, if not always, have the chance to hear every local song as they pass through the different sections of [the] country, and particularly so with minstrel companies, who are always on the look out for songs and sayings that will answer their business. He claimed at one point to have based the first part of "Dixie" on "Come Philander Let's Be Marchin, Every One for His True Love Searchin", which he described as a "song of his childhood days". Musical analysis does show some similarities in the melodic outline, but the songs are not closely related. Emmett also credited "Dixie" to an old circus song. Despite the disputed authorship, Firth, Pond & Co. paid Emmett $300 for all rights to "Dixie" on 11 February 1861, perhaps fearing complications spurred by the impending Civil War.
However, a Mount Vernon, Ohio, tradition, which dates to the 1910s or 1920s at the latest, lends some credence to this notion. Many Mount Vernon residents claim that Emmett collaborated informally with a pair of black musicians named Ben and Lew Snowden. Those who remember the Snowden brothers describe them as "informal", "spontaneous", "creative", and "relatively free of concern over ownership" of their songs. The Snowden brothers were part of the Snowden Family Band, which was well known for traveling about the region. That Emmett might have met and played with these local celebrities is hardly surprising. The story is well enough known that the grave marker for Ben and Lew Snowden, set in 1976 by the black American Legion post, reads, "They taught 'Dixie' to Dan Emmett".
The Snowden theory has, however, one serious flaw. While Emmett likely did meet and play with Ben and Lew Snowden when he retired to Knox County, the Snowden brothers would have been only small children at the time Emmett composed "Dixie". Howard L. Sacks and Judith Sacks suggest that the Ohio legend may in fact be off by a generation, and that Emmett could have collaborated instead with the Snowden parents, Thomas and Ellen. This idea dates to at least 1978, in a genealogical history of the Robert Greer family of Knox County.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that this is possible. Emmett's grandparents owned the farm adjacent to the Snowden homestead, and Emmett's father was one of a few blacksmiths to whom Thomas Snowden could have brought his horses for shoeing. Furthermore, an unpublished biography of Emmett, written in 1935 by a friend of the Emmett family, Mary McClane, says that Emmett visited Mt. Vernon several times from 1835 until the 1860s and toured the surrounding area giving fiddle performances. Emmett certainly refers to Knox County in other songs, including "Seely Simpkins Jig", which refers to a fiddler there, and "Owl Creek Quickstep", which is named for an early settlement in the area.
Advocates of the Snowden theory believe that the lyrics of "Dixie" are a protest through irony and parody against the institution of slavery. The references to "Cimmon seed an' sandy bottom" in one version of the song may refer to Nanjemoy, Maryland, Ellen Snowden's birthplace, and located in an area that was known for its persimmons and sandy, wet lowlands. Slaves rarely knew their exact birth date, instead recalling broad details that someone was born, for example, "Early on one frosty mornin'". A domestic slave, as Ellen Snowden had been, would have been well placed to witness a love affair between "Old Missus" and "Will-de-weaber". Food imagery, such as "buck-wheat cake" and "'Ingen' batter", further points to a writer who had some experience as a cook.
A 1950 article by Ada Bedell Wootton claims that Ben and Lew Snowden sometimes played with Dan Emmett during the minstrel's retirement. At his death in 1923, Lew Snowden owned a small box of newspaper clippings asserting Emmett's authorship of "Dixie". He also had a small framed photograph of Emmett, a fixture on the Snowden house's wall for years, with the text "Author of 'Dixie'!" written under the minstrel's name. Scholars such as Clint Johnson, Robert James Branham, and Stephen J. Hartnett accept the claims of black origin for the song or at least allow for the possibility. Nevertheless, many scholars, such as E. Lawrence Abel, dismiss the Snowden claims outright.
Bryant's Minstrels premiered "Dixie" in New York City on 4 April 1859 as part of their blackface minstrel show. It appeared second to last on the bill, perhaps an indication of the Bryants' lack of faith that the song could carry the minstrel show's entire finale. The walkaround was billed as a "plantation song and dance". It was a runaway success, and the Bryants quickly made it their standard closing number.
"Dixie" quickly gained wide recognition and status as a minstrel standard, and it helped rekindle interest in plantation material from other troupes, particularly in the third act. It became a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's and was played during his campaign in 1860 and at his inauguration in 1861. The New York Clipper wrote that it was "one of the most popular compositions ever produced" and that it had "been sung, whistled, and played in every quarter of the globe. Buckley's Serenaders performed the song in London in late 1860, and by the end of the decade, it had found its way into the repertoire of British sailors. As the American Civil War broke out, one New Yorker wrote,
"Dixie" has become an institution, an irrepressible institution in this section of the country . . . As a consequence, whenever "Dixie" is produced, the pen drops from the fingers of the plodding clerk, spectacles from the nose and the paper from the hands of the merchant, the needle from the nimble digits of the maid or matron, and all hands go hobbling, bobbling in time with the magical music of "Dixie.
The song even added a new term to the American lexicon: "Whistling 'Dixie'" is a slang expression meaning "[engaging] in unrealistically rosy fantasizing". For example, "Don't just sit there whistling 'Dixie'!" is a reprimand against inaction, and "You ain't just whistling 'Dixie'!" indicates that the addressee is serious about the matter at hand.
The Rumsey and Newcomb Minstrels brought "Dixie" to New Orleans in March 1860; the walkaround became the hit of their show. That April, Mrs. John Wood sang "Dixie" in a John Brougham burlesque called Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage, increasing the song's popularity in New Orleans. On the surface "Dixie" seems an unlikely candidate for a Southern hit; it has a Northern composer, stars a black protagonist, is intended as a dance song, and lacks any of the patriotic bluster of most national hymns and marches. Had it not been for the atmosphere of sectionalism in which "Dixie" debuted, it might have faded into obscurity. Nevertheless, the refrain "In Dixie Land I'll took my stand / To lib an die in Dixie", coupled with the first verse and its sanguine picture of the South, hit a chord. Woods's New Orleans audience demanded no fewer than seven encores.
New Orleans publisher P. P. Werlein took advantage and published "Dixie" in New Orleans. He credited music to J. C. Viereck and Newcomb for lyrics. When the minstrel denied authorship, Werlein changed the credit to W. H. Peters. Werlein's version, subtitled "Sung by Mrs. John Wood", was the first "Dixie" to do away with the faux black dialect and misspellings. The publication did not go unnoticed, and Firth Pond & Co. threatened to sue. The date on Werlein's sheet music precedes that of Firth, Pond & Co.'s version, but Emmett later recalled that Werlein had sent him a letter offering to buy the rights for $5. In a New York musical publishers' convention, Firth, Pond & Co. succeeded in convincing those present that Emmett was the composer. In future editions of Werlein's arrangement, Viereck is merely credited as "arranger". Whether ironically or sincerely, Emmett dedicated a sequel called "I'm Going Home to Dixie" to Werlein in 1861.
"Dixie" quickly spread to the rest of the South, enjoying vast popularity. By the end of 1860, secessionists had adopted it as theirs; on 20 December the band played "Dixie" after each vote for secession at St. Andrew's Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. On 18 February 1861, the song took on something of the air of national anthem when it was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, arranged as a quickstep by Hermann Arnold, and possibly for the first time as a band arrangement. Emmett himself reportedly told a fellow minstrel that year that "If I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it.
In May 1861 Confederate Henry Hotze wrote:
It is marvellous with what wild-fire rapidity this tune "Dixie" has spread over the whole South. Considered as an intolerable nuisance when first the streets re-echoed it from the repertoire of wandering minstrels, it now bids fair to become the musical symbol of a new nationality, and we shall be fortunate if it does not impose its very name on our country.
Southerners who shunned the song's low origins and comedic nature changed the lyrics, usually to focus on Southern pride and the war. Albert Pike's enjoyed the most popularity; the Natchez (Mississippi) Courier published it on 30 May 1861 as "The War Song of Dixie", followed by Werlein, who again credited Viereck for composition. Henry Throop Stanton published another war-themed "Dixie", which he dedicated to "the Boys in Virginia". The defiant "In Dixie Land I'll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie" were the only lines used with any consistency. The tempo also quickened, as the song was a useful quickstep tune. Confederate soldiers by and large preferred these war versions to the original minstrel lyrics. "Dixie" was probably the most popular song for Confederate soldiers on the march, in battle, and at camp.
Southerners who rallied to the song proved reluctant to acknowledge a Yankee as its composer. Accordingly, some ascribed it a longer tradition as a folk song. Poet John Hill Hewitt wrote in 1862 that "The homely air of 'Dixie', of extremely doubtful origin . . . [is] generally believed to have sprung from a noble stock of Southern stevedore melodies.
Meanwhile, many Northerners took offense to the South's appropriation of "Dixie". Before even the fall of Fort Sumter, Frances J. Crosby published "Dixie for the Union" and "Dixie Unionized". The tune formed part of the repertoire of both Union bands and common troops until 1863. Broadsides circulated with titles like "The Union 'Dixie'" or "The New Dixie, the True 'Dixie' for Northern Singers". Northern "Dixies" branded Southerners as traitors and resorted to pure insults. Emmett himself arranged "Dixie" for the military in a book of fife instruction in 1862, and a 1904 work by Charles Burleigh Galbreath claims that Emmett gave his official sanction to Crosby's Union lyrics. At least 39 versions of the song, both vocal and instrumental, were published between 1860 and 1866.
Northerners, Emmett among them, also declared that the "Dixie Land" of the song was actually in the North. One common story, still cited today, claimed that Dixie was a Manhattan slave owner who had sent his slaves south just before New York's 1827 banning of slavery. The stories had little effect; for most Americans "Dixie" was synonymous with the South.
I propose now closing up by requesting you play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought "Dixie" one of the best tunes I ever heard . . . I had heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it . . . I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize . . . I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it.
"Dixie" slowly re-entered Northern repertoires, mostly in private performances. New Yorkers resurrected stories about "Dixie" being a part of Manhattan, thus reclaiming the song for themselves. The New York Weekly wrote, "... no one ever heard of Dixie's land being other than Manhattan Island until recently, when it has been erroneously supposed to refer to the South, from its connection with pathetic negro allegory. In 1888 the publishers of a Boston songbook included "Dixie" as a "patriotic song", and in 1895 the Confederate Veterans' Association suggested a celebration in honor of "Dixie" and Emmett in Washington as a bipartisan tribute. One of the planners noted that:
In this era of peace between the sections . . . thousands of people from every portion of the United States will be only too glad to unite with the ex-confederates in the proposed demonstration, and already some of the leading men who fought on the Union side are enthusiastically in favor of carrying out the programme. Dixie is as lively and popular an air today as it ever was, and its reputation is not confined to the American continent . . . [W]herever it is played by a big, strong band the auditors cannot help keeping time to the music.
However, "Dixie" was still most strongly associated with the South. Northern singers and writers often used it for parody or as a quotation in other pieces to establish a person or setting as Southern. For example, African Americans Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle quoted "Dixie" in the song "Banana Days" for their 1921 musical Shuffle Along. In 1905 the United Daughters of the Confederacy mounted a campaign to acknowledge an official Southern version of the song (one that would purge it forever of its African American associations). Although they obtained the support of the United Confederate Veterans and the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, Emmett's death the year before turned sentiments against the project, and the groups were ultimately unsuccessful in having any of the 22 entries universally adopted.
As African Americans entered minstrelsy, they exploited the song's popularity in the South by playing "Dixie" as they first arrived in a Southern town. According to Tom Fletcher, a black minstrel of the time, it tended to please those who might otherwise be antagonistic to the arrival of a group of black men.
Still, "Dixie" was not rejected outright in the North. An article in the New York Tribune, c. 1908, said that "though 'Dixie' came to be looked upon as characteristically a song of the South, the hearts of the Northern people never grew cold to it. President Lincoln loved it, and to-day it is the most popular song in the country, irrespective of section. As late as 1934, the music journal The Etude asserted that "the sectional sentiment attached to Dixie has been long forgotten; and today it is heard everywhere—North, East, South, West.
"Dixie" had become Emmett's most enduring legacy. In the 1900 census of Knox County, Emmett's occupation is given as "author of Dixie". The band at Emmett's funeral played "Dixie" as he was lowered into his grave. His grave marker, placed 20 years after his death, reads,
The earliest of these protests came from students of Southern universities, where "Dixie" was a staple of a number of marching bands. In 1967 black cadets at The Citadel refused to stand for "Dixie" or to sing and perform it at football games. Similar protests have since occurred at the University of Virginia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Tulane University. In 2002, the University of Mississippi's vice chancellors attempted to compromise by adding more general American pieces to the band's playlist and by restricting the playing of "Dixie" to twice per game.
The debate has since moved beyond student populations. Members of the 75th United States Army Band protested "Dixie" in 1971. In 1989 three black Georgia senators walked out when the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato Queen sang "Dixie" in the Georgia chamber. Meanwhile, many black musicologists have challenged the song's racist origins. For example, Sam Dennison writes that "Today, the performance of 'Dixie' still conjures visions of an unrepentant, militarily recalcitrant South, ready to reassert its aged theories of white supremacy at any moment . . . This is why the playing of 'Dixie' still causes hostile reactions.
On the other hand, for many Southerners, "Dixie", like the Confederate flag, is a symbol of Southern heritage and identity. Southern schools maintain the "Dixie" fight song, often coupled with the Rebel mascot and the Confederate battle flag school symbol, despite protests. Confederate heritage websites regularly feature the song, and Confederate heritage groups routinely sing "Dixie" at their gatherings. In his song "Dixie on My Mind", country musician Hank Williams, Jr., cites the absence of "Dixie" on Northern radio stations as an example of how Northern culture pales in comparison to its Southern counterpart. Others consider the song a part of the patriotic American repertoire on a par with "America the Beautiful" and "Yankee Doodle". For example, Chief Justice William Rehnquist regularly included "Dixie" in his annual sing-along for the 4th Circuit Judicial Conference in Virginia. However, its performance prompted some African American lawyers to avoid the event.
Campaigns against "Dixie" and other Confederate symbols have helped create a sense of political ostracism and marginalization among working-class white Southerners. Confederate heritage groups and literature proliferated in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to criticism of the song. Historian Clint Johnson calls modern opposition to "Dixie" "an open, not-at-all-secret conspiracy and an example of political correctness. Johnson claims that modern versions of the song are not racist and simply reinforce that the South "extols family and tradition." Other supporters, such as State Senator Glenn McConnell of South Carolina, have called the attempts to suppress the song cultural genocide.
Performers who choose to sing "Dixie" today usually remove the black dialect and combine the song with other pieces. For example, Rene Marie's jazz version mixes "Dixie" with "Strange Fruit", a Billie Holiday song about a lynching. Mickey Newbury's "An American Trilogy" (often performed by Elvis Presley and covered by Manowar) combines "Dixie" with the Union's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the African American spiritual "All My Trials".
However, in modern times "Dixie" is usually heard as an instrumental piece. Thus, to countless people "Dixie" signifies nothing more than "Southern United States". This interpretation has been reinforced through years of American popular culture. For example, the soundtracks of cartoons featuring Southern characters like Foghorn Leghorn often play "Dixie" to quickly set the scene. On the television series The Dukes of Hazzard, which takes place in Georgia, the car horn of the General Lee plays part of the melody from the song. Sacks and Sacks argue that such apparently innocent associations only further serve to tie "Dixie" to its blackface origins, as these comedic programs are, like the minstrel show, "inelegant, parodic [and] dialect-ridden". On the other hand, Poole sees the "Dixie" car horn, mimicked by white Southerners, as another example of the song's role as a symbol of "working-class revolt". However, in more serious fare, "Dixie" signals "Southern". For example, Max Steiner quotes the song in the opening scene of his late 1930s score to Gone with the Wind as a down-beat nostalgic instrumental to set the scene and Ken Burns makes use of instrumental versions in his 1990's Civil War documentary.