Dixie, Dixieland or it’s original title Dixie’s Land is one of the few songs, written especially for blackface minstrel shows, to survive. Written in the mid-nineteenth century, before southern succession was declared, it became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate army and today something of an anthem for the American South in general.
Although credited with the original tune and lyrics, Ohio-born composer Daniel Decatur Emmett once admitted that he had gotten the song from an unknown black man. Theories abound about his association with a family of former slaves who held the homestead next to that of his grandfather. In fact, some hold that it was a black couple and not a black man who collaborated with Emmett in the writing of the song, Thomas and Ellen Snowden of Knox County Ohio. We will never know the truth behind the song, but the connection between the Snowden’s and Emmett can not be disputed.
The original lyrics tell a tale of a freed slave longing to return to his plantation and the people and life he knows, indicating to some that the institution of slavery was a good thing. Others believe that Thomas and Ellen Snowden meant it to be a mocking caricature of the institution of slavery. Whatever it’s origins and meaning, as with all folk music (although I’m told this song does not actually fall into the folk category because it was written for a musical show) it represents a part of our history. Whether we want to acknowledge that history or not, the fact is that the song for all its negative ideas is a part of our heritage.
A favorite of Abraham Lincoln, he used it many times during his election campaigns and had it played to honor the South when he announced the end of the American Civil War. Today it is in the repertoire of virtually every marching and brass band in the United States, if not the world.