- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2004

“Dixie,” that jaunty, irresistible and instantly recognizable tune, seemed to symbolize all that was angry, defiant and — until things began to go badly — optimistic about the Confederacy’s break with the Union. As far as most people were concerned, “Dixie” was a Southern tune. But was it really?

Authoritative books on old songs all confirm that “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” was not a Southern song originally — that it was written and composed by Daniel Decatur Emmett and first performed as a walk-around for Bryant’s Minstrels on Sept. 19, 1859, when that troupe performed it in New York.

Abraham Lincoln heard it the following year when he was in Chicago, where it was played and sung by Ramsey & Newcomb’s Minstrels. Lincoln had a great liking for minstrel shows and was very fond of excessively sentimental (often morbid) so-called “heart” songs, which could bring him close to tears.

The year 1861 must have been when “Dixie” moved south, for it was sung that spring by Susan Denin at the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans. Its reception was so rapturous that Miss Denin had to take seven encores. In 1862, it was heard at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration ceremony.

Composer Emmett, who is said to have resented Southern appropriation of his song, apparently made little money from it.

Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 1815, he learned to play fife and drums as a boy and later became proficient with banjo and fiddle. He joined an Army band while in his teens but was discharged promptly when it was discovered he was younger than he had claimed.

He became a circus entertainer and in 1843 helped form the Virginia Minstrels. After appearing in New York and Boston, the troupe crossed the Atlantic and was well-received in Liverpool, Manchester and London’s prestigious Adelphi Theatre. After the group broke up, Emmett returned home in 1844 to join Bryant’s Minstrels.

When war came, Albert G. Pike (1809-1891) wrote “The War Song of Dixie,” using the same tune. This antagonistic lyric was seen first on April 30, 1862, in the Nashville Courier. Pike’s version can be described fairly as a hymn of hate. A lawyer, he became a Confederate brigadier general in 1861, commanding troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark. The next year, he resigned his commission. He fled to Canada in 1865 and was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

“Dixie,” then, appears to have been a Northern song by Emmett, later adapted by Pike.

But did Emmett really write the original version — or did he merely provide a highly successful adaptation of someone else’s work? Not too long ago, authors and researchers Judith and Howard Sacks came to the conclusion that the original lyrics and tune were the work of Ellen Cooper Snowden, mother of a family of black entertainers in Mount Vernon who used to appear before white audiences.

Presumably, Emmett heard them singing “Dixie” and made the song his own. He died in 1904, and the last Snowden died in 1923.

Interestingly, a book published in 1911 referred to “Dixie” as “an old Northern Negro air.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, “Dixie” lives on, and no country but America could have created it. If anything, the touch of mystery that surrounds it adds to the charm of a song that stirred many a Southern heart when the course of the Confederacy seemed set so fair.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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