History I Never Knew: “Dixie”

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

It was a cold and rainy evening in New York, back in 1859, and Daniel Decatur Emmet was feeling lousy.  The Ohio-born Emmet, an abolitionist and a songwriter for minstrel shows, was warming himself by the wood stove and wishing he were somewhere else – preferably someplace that was warm, like the states of the American South.

Legend has that his wife sympathetically suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a song about it?”

A good idea, especially because Emmett had recently been hired by a company named Bryant’s Minstrels, and he had to come up with a new song, a “walkaround” for the minstrel show, within a couple of days.

Emmet sat down and wrote, “I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Bryant’s Minstrels premiered “Dixie” on April 4, 1959. It was the second-to-last song in the show, billed as a “plantation song and dance” and placed there because they didn’t think it was going to be good enough to serve as the show’s finale. They were wrong. It was an immediate smash hit, as soon became the standard closing number for the Bryan minstrel shows.

You know what happened. “Dixie” became the anthem and rallying song of the Confederacy. It was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and by General Pickett before his disastrous charge at Gettysburg.

But the song also was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln. It was played at many of his campaign rallies for the 1860 election.

Not all Southerners liked it because they knew of its Yankee origin. They inserted lyrics of their own to make it more martial, such as “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie.”

In 1861, a Swiss-American Confederate propagandist named 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.”

Emmet, the abolitionist, expressed regret for not having worked a little harder on the song’s original composition after he saw what a success it was. He also regretted that it became the Confederate Anthem. And he never made much money from it. Had he not sold it outright for $300 to Firth, Pond and Company in 1861, he could have lived a life of luxury on the royalties.

On April 10, 1865, one day after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln addressed a White House crowd:

“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.”

This was one way in which Lincoln showed his willingness to be conciliatory to the South – to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – and allow formerly rebellious Americans to rejoin the Union.

So next time you visit a Waffle House, remember:

“There’s buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,

Makes you fat or a little fatter.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”

And there you have it. A song that, nowadays, is seen as hateful, racist and discriminatory was written by a man who was committed to the abolition of slavery. It was also a favorite of the man who freed the slaves.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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