“Dixie Land”: The Minstrel Song That Became a Hit
With its beginnings in theater, the story of “Dixie” starts with a song. By the mid-nineteenth century, minstrel shows – a variety show that included singing and dancing – were popular entertainments that ridiculed African slaves. Using skits that depicted Africans as lazy and good-natured, minstrel shows introduced “blackface” characters played by white actors in black makeup. They perpetuated the “dumb Negro” stereotype, beginning with the “Jim Crow” character in the 1830s. Initially appearing once or twice within a given performance, “blackface” caricatures soon became the center of the minstrelsy.
In the 1840s, songwriter and performer Daniel Decatur Emmett created the Virginia Minstrels, the first minstrel show to entirely perform with white actors in blackface. The trend grew in popularity, and soon every minstrel show focused on “blackface” characters. Almost two decades later, in 1859, Emmett wrote and performed in Jerry Bryant’s traveling minstrel show. In April of that year, Emmett performed his new song, “Dixie Land,” as part of the finale. A songwriter since his teenage years, Emmett couldn’t have predicted the popularity of his song.
Keeping the theme of minstrel shows, Emmett wrote the song from a loyal slave’s perspective of his mistress’s relationship and remarriage to a man of poor moral character. After the new husband inherits the plantation, the speaker declared his intention to remain on the land until he dies. As Jerry Bryant’s minstrel show traveled throughout the North, “Dixie Land” gained popularity, and most historians now acknowledge it as one of the last famous minstrel songs.
Minstrel shows were more successful in the North, and “Dixie Land” didn’t immediately reach the Southern states. Abraham Lincoln heard it in 1860 when he attended the Rumsey and Newcomb Minstrels show in Chicago. He loved the song so much that it played on his campaign trail in his bid for the presidency. By the end of that year, the song spread throughout the South as they considered secession from the Union. The new Confederacy didn’t want any association with the Northern Union. Rejecting the national anthem of the United States, the Confederacy needed a new song that would celebrate their separation from the free states.
In February 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis requested “Dixie Land” at his inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama. It became the best form of free press for the song. Davis reportedly loved the song so much that he played it often on his music box. Newspapers, such as the Richmond Dispatch and the New York Times, promoted the song as the Confederacy’s new anthem. In Virginia, General Robert E. Lee tried to buy a copy of the song for his wife, but every store in the state was sold out.