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'Dixie' now too symbolic of old South, not of origins

Friday, September 04, 1998

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The song "Dixie" has become identified with significant aspects of American history.

    Related article:

Band program provokes calls, comments


Unfortunately, say several black musicologists, it's for all the wrong reasons.

Because "Dixie" is now synonymous with slavery, racism and hatred, the music historians say, it was wise for the Woodland Hills School District to postpone this week's scheduled marching band performance of a Civil War program that included the song.

Still, Woodland Hills plans to hold the concert Wednesday, and has no plans for now to delete "Dixie" from the program, which includes several songs representing the Union and Confederacy.

But musicologist Josephine Wright made it clear that in her opinion, "Dixie" should be dropped.

"There're too many symbols attached to that song and you can't strip them away," said Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. "It's a symbol of the old South. I don't know how you can clean up 'Dixie."'

It would take quite a rehabilitation.

Originally written by an Ohioan in 1859 for use in a traveling minstrel show, it became the anthem of the Confederacy and was played at the inaugural of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the years since, it has assumed a life of its own, associated with stereotypes of a conservative, racist white South.

"In all honesty, music is not independent of its culture," said Horace Clarence Boyer, a black professor of music theory and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The white people took it and used it to mean something."

Some songs have a broad acceptance, Boyer said, but "Dixie" isn't one of them.

"You don't have to explain why you're playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' You don't have to explain why you're playing 'America the Beautiful.' It has to be explained why somebody is playing 'Dixie' -- unless it's the Ku Klux Klan."

Song could be explained

Boyer noted, however, that he personally feels Woodland Hills High School could still have a performance that included "Dixie," but only if it carefully told the audience ahead of time the reasons for the song's use.

When Boyer was a U.S. Army recruit at Fort Jackson, S.C., he recalled that tradition called for the army band to strike up "Dixie" when the base's general made his first appearance.

"I had to think for a moment about whether I would stand and salute," Boyer said, "because I was offended."

Marva Carter, a black assistant professor of music history and literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said that if it were possible to separate "Dixie" from its politicized associations, "it's not a bad song."

But whenever ethnic groups protest the playing of types of music, Carter said, "usually we're talking about music that's politicized and (produces) emotional reactions."

For example, she said, during the late 1860s and the following decade, blacks didn't want to hear Negro spirituals because of the music's connection to the period of slavery.

More recently, Jews have protested the playing of music by German composer Richard Wagner, whose operas were co-opted by the Nazis. In fact, only this year did the Israeli government allow Wagner's works to be played publicly in that country.

The irony about "Dixie" is that the five-verse song was written by a Northerner with little interest in politics, and whose parents were strict abolitionists.

Daniel Decatur Emmett was living in New York City in 1859 writing songs for a minstrel troupe. The Mount Vernon, Ohio, native composed hundreds of other songs, including "Old Dan Tucker," but none of his other melodies packed the same punch as "Dixie."

The song, like many minstrel show tunes, was critical of authority. It speaks of the white plantation master, "Will the Weaver," taking a black slave named "Old Missus," who then dies. As the fourth verse warns: "Now here's a health to the next old missus ... "

But most Southerners disregarded the final four verses and concentrated on the first one, which is what most people today are familiar with: "I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten/Look away, look away, look away, Dixie's Land."

"The first verse made it a Southern anthem," said Jon Finson, a white professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor of American studies. But when the song was written, he said, "it was not particularly Southern."

The minstrel show has been called the first distinct American music-theater genre. Whites wore blackface and entertained their audiences with crude depictions of black life and music, usually using "black-face dialect." Begun in the early 1840s, the shows continued to be popular into the 1930s.

Foster contributed

Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster, a contemporary of Emmett, wrote several songs in this genre. The two probably never met, said Deane L. Root, director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh. Root said Foster wrote 23 minstrel songs, a small percentage of his 286 compositions.

"Minstrel shows were in their era what television is today," said Root. "They were the most widely available form of popular entertainment. Every town had shows."

Emmett was skilled at playing the fife, violin and flute. He wrote "Dixie" in a single day, a cold wet Sunday in New York City. Some say the line "I wish I was in Dixie" may have come from Emmett's wife, who hated the gray Northern winters.

Historians of music and American culture still debate where the word "Dixie" came from.

Some say it began in Louisiana, where a bank once printed $10 bills with the French word for 10 -- dix, pronounced "deez" -- on them. But legend says locals mauled the foreign pronunciation and began calling Louisiana "Dix's Land" and later "Dixie," before the term came to describe the entire South.

Another theory is that Dixie referred to stories about a kind slave owner named Dixie or Dixy. "Dixie's Land" became a term for any comfortable place to live in the South.

Webster's New World Dictionary attributes it to the name of a Negro character in a minstrel play.

Whatever the origin of the word, the song brought Emmett such fame that even today his hometown produces an annual Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival. (Knox County, where Mount Vernon is located, also claims William Donner, who gained notoriety as a cannibal when his ill-fated expedition was trapped during the 1846-1847 winter in a Sierra Nevada mountain pass; TV actor Paul Lynde; and 19th-century women's rights activist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president.)

One last word:

There are long-standing rumors that Emmett actually may have acquired "Dixie" from brothers Ben and Lew Snowden, members of a black family that moved to Mount Vernon from Virginia. Although a recent book called "Way Up North in Dixie" makes this claim, the Knox County Historical Society has checked census records and found that Ben and Lew would have been just 5 or 6 years old at the time.

Nevertheless, a local fraternal lodge put a marker on the Snowden brothers' gravesites in the 1940s that reads: "The men who taught Dan Dixie."

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