Complete lyrics and link to performance by the 2nd South Carolina String Band
An American Trilogy
An American Trilogy is a song arranged by country songwriter Mickey Newbury and made popular by Elvis Presley. It is a medley of three 19th century songs—"Dixie", a blackface minstrel song that became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy since the Civil War; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", the marching song of the Union Army during the Civil War; and "All My Trials", originally a Bahamian lullaby, but closely related to African American spirituals, and well-known through folk music revivalists.
“Dixie” (1859), a familiar song from the nineteenth century, was composed and performed by Dan Emmett (a white native of Ohio) in 1859 when he was a member of the Bryant’s Minstrels troupe in New York City. It was to be a new closing, or “walk-around,” number for the group’s show. The style in which Bryant’s Minstrels and similar minstrel troupes performed “Dixie” owed a great deal to African-American traditions of singing, dancing, and banjo playing. In its catchy polka rhythm it resembles earlier minstrel songs like “Turkey in the Straw” (1824) or “Oh Susanna” (1848). Its text, like the closing “walk-arounds” from other minstrel shows, pictured the South as a happy land bathed in rural nostalgia, an appealing contrast, perhaps, to the urban squalor of New York, not to mention its cold winter weather. The chorus to “Dixie” (“I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray, Hooray!” etc.), tells us what we already know: that sectionalism and slavery were important issues in American politics in 1859, particularly in defining the distinctness of the South and the North.
When the Civil War came in 1861, “Dixie” reinforced and strengthened southern white identity. Some lines of the chorus (“In Dixie land I’ll take my stand, live and die in Dixie”) hint at the belligerence of southern sentiment in the 1850s and helped symbolize white southern defiance ever after, eventually including defiance of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
On the other hand, the jaunty rhythm seems to imply that sectionalism and factionalism are just a kind of sport. To the white audience at a minstrel show in New York, with white men using burnt-cork to portray “darkies” singing about the joys of the rural South, it may indeed have sounded this way and served to help deny the cruelty of slavery or the importance of sectional differences. Indeed, many of the lyrics to “Dixie” had nothing to do with slavery or other moral and political differences between the sections (“Old Missus marry Will de Weaber [weaver], Will-yum was a gay deceaber [deceiver]” or “Dars buckwheat cakes an’ ingen [Indian] batter, makes you fat or a little fatter”). But by 1861 the Confederacy had taken up the song as its anthem and marching song, beginning when it was played at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as President of the Confederacy. Its meanings in the South became very different from its meanings in the North, where it usually signified rebellion, support for slavery, and sedition.
Northern publishers issued versions of the song with titles like “Dixie Unionized,” with the words rewritten to support the northern cause, but these never really caught on. Even so, “Dixie” remained one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs and he requested it be played for him a few days before his assassination, saying “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. . . .”
For large numbers of Americans in both North and South, however, the song retained its wartime and racial connotations well into the twentieth century. In the North, “Dixie” returned gradually to the repertory, but mainly in private rather than public contexts (although it appeared as a “Patriotic Song” in a collection published in Boston in 1888). In the theater it was typically heard in parody versions or as a quotation within another song, as when used ironically by African-American performers like Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake in “Bandana Days” from their 1921 musical Shuffle Along.
Other than online sheet music, what sources might exist for helping us understand the song, its influence, and its meaning to different people? Sources for “Dixie” include Dan Emmett’s autographed copy of the song, which has been preserved at the Ohio Historical Society and the publication of the words without the music in a little songster called Bryant’s Power of Music in 1859. Recorded performances of “Dixie”—by choral groups, by marching bands, by “Dixieland” bands, etc. —also count as sources. So do parody versions and snatches of the words or tune. Dan Emmett’s letters and notebooks illuminate some of the early contexts of “Dixie”; so do newspaper and magazine accounts of performances by Bryant’s Minstrels in New York. “Dixie” also had many later contexts, documented by accounts of minstrel shows, photographs, arguments in the press, legal proceedings, and movies. The latter include a highly fictional 1943 film biography of Dan Emmett, starring Bing Crosby. Perhaps there is some significance to the fact that such a movie appeared during World War II, a time when Hollywood was trying to promote national unity.
During the civil rights movement and afterward, “Dixie” often served as an anthem for white southerners and a reminder of slavery and racism for African Americans. That sometimes produced ironic results. In the 1960s an exiled black power advocate, Robert Williams, called his radio broadcast from Havana “Radio Free Dixie.” In 2002 the same phrase appeared on a Web site advising white southerners on how to proclaim their confederate heritage.
The historical sources for “Dixie” clearly encompass a tremendous diversity of materials, dating from 1859 up to the present and much of its curious history remains untold. It is often offensive to African Americans. For example, a recent book by Howard and Judith Sacks, Way up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Washington: Smithsonian Institutions Press, 1993), argues that “Dixie” was not composed by Dan Emmett, but came from the repertory of the Snowden family, black musicians who were neighbors of Emmett’s in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. The Sacks’ book is a reminder that “Dixie” is a part of our national cultural heritage and continues to have multiple meanings nearly a century and a half after it was first sung.
This name for the American South first appears in 1859 in the lyrics of a minstrel song. The etymology is uncertain, but it is most likely a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland delimited by those eponymous surveyors.
The first recorded use of the of Dixie is from the song Johnny Roach, by Daniel D. Emmett, first performed in February 1859:
Gib me de place called Dixie land,
Wid hoe and shubble in my hand.
A few months later, in April, Emmett used Dixie again in his more famous song Dixie’s Land:
I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land whar’ I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
Dixie’s Land, or just Dixie, was an enormous hit. If they had popular music charts in 1859, the song would have topped them. For his part, however, Emmett never claimed coinage of Dixie. In 1872 he said:
“Dixie’s Land” is an old phrase applied to the Southern States...lying south of Mason and Dixon’s line. In my traveling days amongst the showmen, when we would start for a winter’s season south, while speaking of the change, they would invariably ejactulate [sic] the stereotyped saying—"I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land,” meaning the southern country.1
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 609-10.
Complete lyrics and link to performance by the 2nd South Carolina String Band
When heard initially, it sounds like a song about reflecting on the good times and being proud of the land where you came from. The lyrics are not blatantly racist, but in recent years, it seems like people interpret this song as being highly inappropriate. What is the original meaning of the song?
Humble (and Racist) Beginnings
In 1859, Bryant’s Minstrels needed to spice up their act. Their material was growing stale; audiences were tired of the same old song and dance. So the troupe owners asked one of the performers, Daniel Decatur Emmett, to put together a new “walk-around.” Walk-arounds were audience favorites, high-energy finales in which the cast members took turns trying to out-sing or dance the performer before them. Emmett accepted the assignment, and legend has it that within a day he had written “Dixie.”
The song was like many other minstrel show songs of the time. It was narrated by a Southern slave who told a tale about “Ole Missus” and her husband Will. The specifics of the tale were not important, though. In fact, if you read the lyrics today, it’s hard to understand why audiences found them so hilarious. But that’s because the humor in minstrel show songs had little to do with the words sung. Instead, audiences were entertained by the manner in which the song and dance routines were performed. In minstrel shows, white actors put on blackface by covering their faces with burnt cork and then talked, sang, and danced in a manner believed typical of African slaves.
These imitations were grotesque stereotypes, crude and racist. And “Dixie” was typical of the formula. Emmett’s narrator sang in the broken English believed typical of slaves (“Old Missus marry Will-de-weaber / Willium was a gay deceaber”), and the words suggested that slaves were fat and happy in their lives (“Dar's buck-wheat cakes an 'Ingen' batter, makes you fat or a little fatter”). Most important, the song suggested that, contrary to all the talk of reformers and abolitionists, slaves were not interested in trading slavery for freedom. Far from it, according to the song: they wished they were “in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!”
Despite what you may think, though, Dan Emmett was no friend of slavery—his father worked on the Underground Railroad. But that did not prevent him from writing a song aimed at tickling the same racist funny bone. Nor did it prevent Northern audiences from enjoying the song. In fact, shortly after it debuted at Mechanics’ Hall in New York City, the song became a national hit. By 1860, people throughout the country were “whistlin’ Dixie.”
But almost as quickly as “Dixie” became a hit, it was surrounded by controversy. Southern secessionists, intent on withdrawing from the Union now that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president, embraced the song as an anthem. Most of the lyrics were unimportant, but one line in particular resonated with their cause: “In Dixie Land I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” And so when South Carolinians met in a special convention to decide whether to withdraw from the Union, a band played “Dixie” every time a delegate voted in favor of secession. And two months later, when Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America, the band also played “Dixie.”
By the time the Civil War had commenced, “Dixie” was the Confederacy’s unofficial anthem. One Confederate officer, Lester Pike, even wrote a new set of lyrics, transforming the song into a battle cry:
Southrons, hear your Country call you
Up, lest worse than death befall you
To arms! To arms! To arms, in Dixie
It’s easy to see why Southerners believed it was their song. After all, the song’s setting was a Southern plantation. And “Dixie” was a common nickname for the South, although it’s not exactly clear why. Some believe the label may have come from ten-dollar bank notes circulated by a New Orleans bank. Referred to as “Dix”—French for ten—they were only accepted as payment for transactions in regions close to New Orleans. In other words, “Dixie Land” was that part of the Deep South that honored these notes as tender.
Others argue, however, that Dixie became another name for the South after Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon completed their survey in 1773, establishing the border between Pennsylvania and Virginia. Since slavery was soon abolished in Pennsylvania, the Mason-Dixon Line became the border between free and slave states.
Yet others have argued that “Dixie Land” was a paradise-like plantation owned by a generous Manhattan slave-owner named “Mr. Dix” (or in some places “Mr. Dixy” or “Mr. Dixie”) in the early part of the century, before slavery became illegal in New York in 1827. Allegedly rumors circulated around that time among slaves that he was a master so kind that his own slaves refused to leave or run away. Hence “Dixie Land” grew to be known as a place of refuge and happiness for slaves somewhere in the North.
War of the Words
However it originated, folks came to associate Dixie with the South, and “Dixie Land” became known as a distinctive region that had built its economy on slave labor and that stretched from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas. But that did not prevent Northerners from arguing that they had an equal claim on the song. After all, it had been written by a Northerner (Emmett was from Ohio) and debuted in a Northern city (New York was about as Union as it gets). Heck, even Abe Lincoln loved “Dixie;” he had used it regularly on whistle stops during his 1860 campaign. And so after Southerners adopted the song for their secession soundtrack, Northerner Francis J. Crosby answered with a set of pro-Union lyrics:
In Crosby’s rendition, Northern soldiers were told that their battle against Southern rebellion was actually part of a larger war launched in 1775. Fort Moultrie was the Patriot fort outside Charleston, South Carolina, that had played such a dramatic role in the defense of the city against British invaders during the American Revolution. Now that South Carolina was the center of insurrection, Crosby urged Northern soldiers to remember these nation-founding battles—Fort Moultrie and Bunker Hill—and meet the Southern traitors with an iron will. They were fighting to preserve the Union that earlier Patriots had secured through revolution; if they adopted their forefathers’ courage, “our union shall not sever.”
In the end, the North won the musical battle as well as the military war. Shortly after announcing the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln ordered the band to strike up “Dixie.” The song, he said, had been “fairly captured.” While some few may say Lincoln had the song played as a way to rub in his victory, and others say that he told the band to play “Dixie” because he missed hearing it himself, most historians agree that it was in fact part of a broader political plan. Once the war was over, Lincoln wanted nothing more than the successful reunion of two American peoples ravaged by war. Having the band play “Dixie” was symbolic of his desire to bring the broken pieces of their great nation back together.
Just a Little Bit of History Repeating
But all of the controversy surrounding the song did not end when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Roughly a century later, “Dixie” excited a new set of arguments. This second round of debates began in the 1960s when African American students at Southern universities objected to the playing of “Dixie” at school events. The song was implicitly racist, they argued, rooted in the minstrel tradition that grotesquely mocked slaves and their degraded lives. And as the anthem of the Confederacy, the song represented the South’s attempts to retain several million African Americans in perpetual bondage.
Nonsense, answered the songs’ defenders; “Dixie” was just a harmless expression of Southern heritage. However it might have originated or been heard 100 years before, it had become nothing more than a celebration of the South, a proud and distinctive part of America. Banning “Dixie,” they said, was “political correctness” run wild, an overly sensitive reaction to an important expression of the South’s culture and history.
The argument was not restricted to college campuses. Several politicians joined the students in arguing that the song should be banned from public ceremonies, just as many countered that the song was a harmless piece of Americana. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist included “Dixie” on the song list for the sing-along he hosted every year at a legal conference.
So which is it? Is the song a racist and painful expression of past sins? Or is it an important piece of American history and culture, an expression of the “Old South” that can be sung without endorsing the attitudes that may have originally lain beneath it?
The debate continues to be waged today, and some of these questions are more easily answered than others. Despite 19th-century attempts to rewrite the song’s history, “Dixie” is not exactly a positive expression of the Old South. It was not written on some Southern porch, nor did it emerge from some ancient folk melody. It was written by a Northerner and first performed in a New York theater, and many historians argue that it was intended to be an ironic parody of Southern values, a joke at the plantation owners’ expense. But clearly the South had a different idea of what the song meant. It was not only set within Southern culture, it became an anthem as the Confederacy launched its war for separation from the Union (another reason it should no longer be celebrated, some say).
There’s no denying the racist tone of the old minstrel song. With its crude portrait of slaves and cheery view of slave life, the song celebrates rather than mourns a tragic part of American history. But on the other hand, the part of the song most commonly sung today is the refrain, which, in isolation, makes a more simple statement: “I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!”
Old Song, New Views
On top of all the other controversy surrounding “Dixie, recent research suggests that the song may be representative of a different legacy of racism: America’s failure for centuries to acknowledge all of the contributions to American life made by African Americans. According to some historians, Daniel Emmett did not actually write the song; they claim he learned “Dixie” from members of the Snowden Family Band, a group of African American performers that lived near his family farm in Ohio. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Emmett knew the Snowdens; in fact, later in his career he actually performed alongside them. And the Snowden family has long maintained that their ancestors wrote the famous minstrel hit, although no claims were made to this effect during Emmett’s lifetime.
Not every music historian has embraced this theory. In fact, most argue that the evidence is more circumstantial than verifiable. Yet the possibility serves as a reminder that African Americans’ contributions to our national culture were buried for centuries. And if ultimately proven true, the Snowdens’ authorship would provide yet another, albeit ironic, example of the enormous impact African Americans made not only on American music, but also Southern identity.
It seems as though we may be in the same place as we were 150 years ago in terms of the song’s place in American society. Is “Dixie” another reminder of America’s painful past that should be mourned rather than celebrated? Or is it an important expression of Southern culture that deserves to be honored and performed?
Ultimately, it’s for you to decide. In the meantime, you might begin by asking a different set of questions. What sort of historical artifact is the song? What does it tell us about American culture and the ways in which 19th-century Americans composed and used music? What does it say about American popular entertainment and both Northern and Southern audiences? What does the song say about its composer, a Northerner and son of an abolitionist? What does it say about Abe Lincoln? And what might it say about the Snowdens and other African American families like them? To play or not to play “Dixie”—somehow that is still the question.