A Minstrel's Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, "Dixie"
A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”

A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”

Jennifer Conerly - November 2, 2018

A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”
Daniel Decatur Emmett, in blackface as part of a minstrel show. Unknown photographer, early 1860s. Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Wikipedia.

“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.

A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”
Detailed image of a playbill for Jerry Bryant’s Minstrel Show from the first performance of “Dixie Land.” Mechanic’s Hall, New York. Dated April 4, 1859. Mark Knowles, Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. Wikipedia.

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.

A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”
Sheet music for Daniel Decatur Emmett’s “Dixieland.” Unknown publishing date. Library of Congress. Wikipedia.

Dixie’s Legacy as the Battle Cry of the Confederacy

By 1862, the Confederacy officially adopted “Dixie,” the shortened form of “Dixie Land,” as its nickname. The song remained popular in the North. Soldiers in both the Confederate and Union armies, as well as citizens and slaves alike, could sing it from memory. It was a catchy tune for the time. Initially embraced by Confederate soldiers who expressed nostalgia and pride in being Southern, they sung it during their formations. When launching attacks on Union soldiers, the Confederate army chanted it.

Over the years, Daniel Decatur Emmett shared different stories of how he wrote the song. In an 1872 interview, he admitted that the phrase “Dixie Land” referred to the states below the Mason-Dixon line. The minstrel show circuit concluded in the North every winter, and the performers missed the warmer climate of “Dixie Land.” Emmett hated his song’s association with the Confederacy, reportedly telling another performer “if I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d written it.”

“Dixie Land” became the most popular song of the nineteenth century – even Abraham Lincoln recognized its power. After the Civil War ended, he brought it into the fold of the Union to heal the wounds of the conflict. On April 8, 1865, the night before Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln traveled onboard the steamboat aboard the River Queen, requesting the band play “Dixie Land.”

A Minstrel’s Song Forever Changed the American South by Inspiring its New Nickname, “Dixie”
Photograph of the River Queen. The day before the official surrender of the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln requested “Dixie Land” played for the passengers aboard the River Queen to heal the tension of the Civil War. Wikipedia.

In the decades following the Civil War, minstrelsy slowly died out as the main form of performance art. It phased into vaudeville shows by the early twentieth century. Although the genre disappeared, the stereotypes of the “dumb Negro” continued until the second half of the century. The Civil Rights Movement challenged these images, but white supremacy is alive and well in the South. Despite its association with the Antebellum “Old South,” the term “Dixie” endures in popular culture.

It coined the term “whistling ‘Dixie,'” a phrase that describes bouts of laziness or daydreaming. Several Southern businesses have “Dixie” in its name, and they are still in business today. Marching bands at southern universities played “Dixie Land” at football games until recent years. In August 2016, the University of Mississippi – “Ole Miss” – finally pulled the song from the university’s marching band lineup. Despite its racial connotations in the modern era, we shouldn’t ignore Dixie’s lasting legacy in the South.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Davis, Linda A.B. “Southern Perspective: What Does Dixie Mean? For Many Southerners, It Means Home.” Pensacola News Journal. March 2018.

“Dixie.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

“Dixie (song).” Wikipedia.

“Dixie.” Wikipedia.

“Editorial: What Does ‘Dixie’ Mean?” The Roanoke Times. September 8, 2018.

“Farewell to ‘Dixie’?” The Louisiana Weekly. August 2016.

Ganucheau, Adam. “For Ole Miss Sports, ‘Dixie’ is dead.” Mississippi Today. August 19, 2016.

Matthew Sabatella and the Rambling String Band. “Dixie’s Land.” Ballad of America: American Heritage Music.

McWhirter, Christian. “The Birth of ‘Dixie.'” The Opinion Pages. The New York Times. March 2012.

“Minstrel Show.” Wikipedia.

Scott, Mike. “Is Dixie a Dirty Word? In New Orleans, It’s Complicated.” The Times-Picayune. January 11, 2018.

Wilton, David. “Dixie.” Word Origins. June 12, 2008.

Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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