Friday, January 8, 2010

Way Down South in Dixie

I'm from the American south, so I guess it's not too surprising that I would have a certain amount of nostalgia for the region. I love the Florida swamps, the fried okra served in diners in the Carolinas, the crumbling elegance of New Orleans. Now that I live in a desert I find myself yearning not for heat but for humidity.

I don't spend much time thinking about it, but occasionally some uniquely southern item will catch my eye. When we stumbled upon the sheet music for Pick Me Up and Lay Me Down in Dear Old Dixieland we couldn't leave without it. The artwork is just so evocative of what I think of as The South.

That said, the south, and the phrase "Dixie", certainly have a dark side. I was taught the song I Wish I was in Dixie as a small child. It seemed perfectly innocent. It was only later that I learned that some people consider it offensive.

I always assumed that the term Dixie stemmed from the Mason-Dixon line, that is, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania which for most intents divided the free states from the slave states. This may be true, but there is another possibility: it may refer to the ten dollar notes issued by private banks in Louisiana. These notes were stamped "dix", meaning "ten" in French, and were called "Dixies" by English speakers. Thus, the area around New Orleans especially, and the south in general, came to be known as "Dixie Land" during the 1800s.

A third possibility is a bit more sinister. Apparently there was a Mr. Dixy living on Manhattan Island who owned slaves until it was made illegal there in 1827. He was said to be kind, and so the term "Dixy's land" referred to a comfortable place in which to be a slave. I can't help but find this to be an incredibly tragic notion.

The song I Wish I was in Dixie is similarly shrouded in mystery. It was supposedly written by Daniel Emmet, a Northerner. But he may have heard it from the Snowden family, a group of African American musicians. The lyrics seem to actually have been penned by Evelyn Snowden in a letter to her father about how much she missed the south. All that is known for sure is that Emmet preformed the song with his blackface minstrel show in New York City in 1859. It became such a hit that the Confederate states used it as their unofficial anthem during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln even ordered it played by upon learning of the Confederate surrender.

Of course, I knew none of this when I sang the song as a girl. I just thought it was about being proud of the place you grew up. Now that I'm older I know that blind pride in one's heritage is not a virtue, and that to truly appreciate a place you need to look past your nostalgia.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Eeesh. Sorry, I was just fixing a typo. Here's my comment: A really nice post, Corinna. I learned a lot. I'd never heard versions 2 and 3 of the derivation of Dixie. I think 3 sounds suspicious, but I think 2 sounds very believable, maybe moreso than the Mason-Dixon thing. Interesting. . . .

  3. Thanks! I thought so too, about version 2. It just seems logical. At least, that's the one that I want to believe!

  4. I am from the south too, though not as far south as the origin of the "dixie" notes. (My dad's family comes from North Carolina and southern Virginia.) The South has a very painful history, not comfortable to think about, but cannot be forgotten. My mom's family is from the north, and I had ancestors fighting on both sides during the Civil War. That always makes me sad.

    I love your post, very thought-provoking. I sang that song as a child also, but never thought about it being offensive.

  5. I'm always interested in reading and learning about possible word/term/nickname origins. I'm amazed at how terms like "Balls to the wall" and words like picnic have grown to having meanings or innuendoes that they were never meant to have. Amazed also at our propensity to accept things as we hear/learn them without researching it ourselves. Thanks for this post.

  6. Awesome post...even if a little on the mysterious possibly sinister side. I think you have to have grown up with humidity to miss it ;-P I like my dry to the ocean hehe

  7. Thanks folks! Fred, I had no idea about the origin until I looked it up in a few places. Kind of made me wonder what else I was wrong about...

    Magpie, I know just how you feel!

    Erin, I think you are entirely correct on that score!

  8. Aw, I shouldn't have read this post. I'm only on disk three of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary, and you already gave away the ending!

    Actually it's really funny you should post this. First of all, very cool. I have a ton of links to old sheet music auctions - I'm so drawn to the artwork and my own work is often very directly inspired by it.

    Secondly, the episode I just watched had a whole little segment on the patriotic sheet music that was going around during the war, and I was thinking how cool it would be to snap something like that up at a garage sale or something.

    In summary: neato.

  9. Thanks tatty! I hope Ken Burns backs up my research, lol! I'm really drawn to the artwork on old sheet music too. It's like a window onto another time. I always think about who bought it and if they played it, and wonder if they defined themselves by it the way lots of people define themselves by what's on their iPod. But I digress...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...