Saturday, April 4, 2009

On This Day in Music (1859): “Dixie” was performed for the first time


Daniel Decatur Emmett (words and music)

Writer(s): Daniel Decatur Emmett (see lyrics here)

First Performed: April 4, 1859

Published: June 21, 1860

First Charted: --

Peak: -- (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming

Awards (Emmett):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Tanner):

About the Song:

“If the Confederacy and its memory had an accompanying anthem, it was ‘Dixie.’” NPR Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Horowitz writes in his book Confederates in the Attic that the song “is sentimental and elegiac, recalling this land of cotton fields and buckwheat cakes and a kind of slow-moving world that can seem appealing through rose-colored glasses…[It] speaks to a bygone, slow-paced world that some white Southerners felt had been snuffed out by a brutish, industrial North.” NPR

The word “dixie” can refer to the land south of the Mason-Dixon line, but is thought to actually be a reference to a worthless ten dollar bill issued in New Orleans. They were called “dixies” because they had “dix,” the French word for “ten,” printed on them. CP

Surprisingly, the song was born in the North. Daniel Decatur Emmett, a Northerner born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1815, was a founder of the Virginia Minstrels in 1843 SS and wrote the songs “Old Dan Tucker” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.” In 1858, he was hired as a songwriter for the Bryant’s Minstrels. “Dixie” had “strong echoes both of an old German hymn and an English music hall song he used to sing.” SS He wrote it on a Sunday night and, according to a playbill from the Mechanics’ Hall in New York City, it was performed at a minstrel show the next night on April 4, 1859. The song was published as “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” on June 21, 1860, selling the publishing rights for $100. SS

Minstrel shows featured white men in blackface performing racial parodies. President Abraham Lincoln heard the song performed in 1860 in Chicago by the Rumsey and Newcomb Minstrels and reportedly clapped and shouted, “Let’s have it again! Let’s have it again!” BA At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln asked for a military band to play “Dixie” as a message that “That tune is now Federal property and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.” BA

However, Southern troops quickly adopted the song, marching into battle singing it. It was played with Confederate President Jefferson Davis took the oath of office in 1861. SA Emmett, who was a Union supporter, reportedly said, “If I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I’ll be damned if I’d have written it.” SA

While it face value “Dixie” is “simply a lovely, infectious regional anthem” SS it has sadly been tied to the 20th century revival of white supremacy. The song soundtracked Birth of a Nation the movie that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1940s, it was embraced by segregationists. In the 1950s, white women sung it in protest of the integration of schools. Much like the Confederate flag, the song has become an anathema to African-Americans. NPR

Civil War historian Ed Ayers asks, “Why do those four years, out of the 400 years that people have lived on this landscape…why do they get to define us forever? Why can’t we claim new voices and new identities that embrace all Southern people?” NPR He acknowledges that it is impossible to hear “’Dixie’ as anything other than a song that’s accrued all this meaning over many generations.” NPR

The song has not charted but has been performed by Issler’s Orchestra (1895), Frank Stanley & Byron Harlan (1909), Gib Tanner & His Skillet Lickers (1927), and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It has been performed by numerous Southern university marching bands.


First posted 8/29/2023.

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