Whistling Dixie: A Pop Song and Its Politics, Then and Now Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Whistling Dixie: A Pop Song and Its Politics, Then and Now

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You ain't just a-whistlin' Dixie.
Old saying in the southern US. Rough translation: 'What you've just said is apt, well-thought-out, and serious, completely devoid of empty bluster.'

Songs can go on long journeys, and change meanings on the way. Take the song 'Dixie'. (Some would say, 'please'.) Whether this 1860 hit makes you giggle, want to dance a Virginia Reel or go to war, or yell at somebody, depends a lot on context. So let's provide some.

The key questions, besides 'Why would Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sing it?' are:

We may think up a few more questions as we go, but that's basically what we want to know. We have to engage in a bit of historical backgrounding and literary/social deconstruction along the way, so please bear with us. The tale starts in 1859, and if it hadn't been raining in New York City, this whole story might not have happened.

I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton

Daniel Decatur Emmett was a 'minstrel'. He knew, because he'd looked the word up in the dictionary. Sad to say, the patriotic Irish American from Ohio, former soldier and product of the army's fife and drum school, pretty much invented the idea of 'negro minstrelsy'. Of course, he'd got the inspiration from his mentor, 'Daddy' Rice. 'Daddy', another Irish American travelling musician, introduced his song-and-dance character, Jim Crow1, in the 1830s. Emmett and three other musicians expanded on Rice's blackface act by creating the Bryant Minstrels, a quartet who danced, played, sang, and told dialect jokes. The act became wildly popular in the United States, though it left British audiences cold, at least initially. Soon, minstrel shows were everywhere: in theatres and music halls, on the road, and as onboard entertainment for Mississippi steamboats.

On this particular day in New York City, Dan Emmett was tasked with writing a new 'walkaround' or 'hooray' song. When it came to 'walkarounds', what you needed was a really catchy tune. Emmett had one. It didn't really matter what the words were, within reason. The lyrics could be pretty much nonsense, as long as it had a strong beat and you could dance to it. Still, words were needed.

Emmett looked out the window and shivered. He thought of the travelling showman's cliché phrase when the weather turned cold: 'I wish I was in Dixie.' Showmen liked to tour the sunny South in the cold seasons. That's it, he thought. I wish I was in Dixie, hooray, hooray... And a hit song was born, just like that.

Of Political Correctness and Other Historical Imponderables

Well, not quite just like that. We need to stop and think about what offended people in 1859, and why.

When audiences went to see 'Daddy' Rice 'jump Jim Crow', or applauded 'Ethiopian' music, nobody objected on anything other than grounds of musical quality. Nobody who mattered, anyway. If you thought it was awful, you were in a vanishing minority. Which brings up the question of what those people thought they were doing, as opposed to what we in the 21st Century think they were doing.

In the early American republic, between the 1790s and the 1850s, almost all performance humour was based on stereotype. Early stereotypes were German farmers (spoke funny English, weren't too bright), frontiersmen (loud braggarts who told fanciful lies), fussy old maids, sanctimonious parsons, and the like. Performers used these stereotype roles as masks. From behind the masks, they mocked at society, often giving the character the freedom to criticise society. Audiences used the stereotypes as a baseline for understanding the jokes. It gave them a starting point. People who would have been too nervous or prejudiced to listen to an African American speaker might pay attention to a point made by a blackface performer, disguised as a joke or song number.

In the 21st Century, we appreciate ethnic humour – but only if used by a card-carrying member of that ethnic group. Audiences laugh appreciatively at Maz Jobrani's Persian jokes   – because Maz Jobrani is Persian. They regard the authenticity of the performer's experience as a validating criterion, as giving them permission to laugh. This audience would properly regard the 19th-Century 'masked stereotype' version as unauthorised cultural appropriation. Which means: the past is a foreign country, where they do things differently.

What did Dan Emmett's first audience – his fellow musicians – object to in the lyrics to his new song?


Dis worl' was made in jiss six days,
An' finish'd up in various ways;
Look away! look away! look Dixie Land!
Dey den made Dixie trim an' nice.
But Adam call'd it 'Paradise'.

According to Dan Emmett's biographer Charles B Galbreath, there was concern that this version of Genesis might offend religiously-minded audience members. So this original first verse was left out of the sheet music for the new song, called 'Dixie's Land'.

Okay, we'll bite. Why in the world was the South called 'Dixie's Land'? We'd better go there next.

What's a Dixie When It's at Home, and What About Those Lyrics?

Even Daniel Emmett didn't know why the antebellum South was called 'Dixie's Land'. He just knew that it was. Was it...

  • A reference to the territory south of the Mason-Dixon Line?
  • A shout-out to the banks of New Orleans, and a desire to get some of those dix-dollar bills from the land of the French speakers?
  • Approving notice of the particularly benevolent regime of a slaveholder named Mr Dixie?

None of these explanations is at all satisfying. And if Dan Emmett didn't know, we'll probably never figure it out. However, 'Dixie's Land' it was, and because the song became a runaway hit in 1860, the South has been called Dixie ever since. Etymological conundra like this are maddening, and make us want to hit Al Jolson and other jazz performers upside the head. They perpetuated the name with Dixieland jazz and endless songs about D-I-X-I-E. Pah.

Now, the lyrics. Do these sound like the anthem of a future nation?

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! Den I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie's land we'll took our stand to lib an' die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!

Buckwheat cakes an' stony batter
Makes you fat or a little fatter;
Den hoe it down an' scratch your grabble,
To Dixie's land I'm bound to trabble.

There are other verses, but nobody sings them anymore, so we will spare the 21st-Century reader. The basic plot is: African Americans want to live in the South (as, apparently, did itinerant musicians) because it was warm there. Implicit in this lyric is the lie that slavery wasn't a nightmare. Considering that Daniel Decatur Emmett's father was a member of the Underground Railroad2 and Emmett was a Union man through and through, the tone-deafness of this lyric to political reality is stunning. Particularly in the election year of 18603. In 1861, the Confederacy was born – and 'Dixie' became its unofficial anthem. How did that happen?

Whistling Dixie

In 1860 and 1861, 'Dixie' was a top hit everywhere. Dan Emmett even had to defend his copyright. (He won the case.) 'Dixie' was particularly popular in the South, of course, because it was about the South in a touchy time.

The crowning popularity of this well-known ditty was secured in New Orleans in the spring of 1861, when Mrs John Wood played an engagement at the Varieties Theatre. 'Pocohontas4', by John Broughan, was the attraction, and in the last scene a zouave march was introduced. Carlo Patti, brother of Adelina Patti, was the leader of the orchestra. At the rehearsal he was at a loss as to what air to appropriate. Trying several, he finally hit upon 'Dixie'... Night came, the Zouaves5 marched on, led by Miss Susan Denin, singing, 'I wish I was in Dixie'. The audience went wild with delight and seven encores were demanded. Soon after, the war broke out. The Washington Artillery had the tune arranged for a quickstep by Romeo Meneri. The saloons, the parlours, the streets rang with the 'Dixie' air, and 'Dixie' became to the South what the 'Marseillaise'6 is to France.
- Dr GA Kane in New York World, 1893.

So 'Dixie' became the hit of the South. It was played on battlefields, no doubt. It was definitely played at rallies and balls. Long after the war, it was played at Confederate reunions. The mere beginning notes of the theme in a movie score hint that Confederates are on the way, or somebody is, at least, going to mention the War. 'Dixie' is part of the memorabilia of history. So why is it controversial today?

Of Rebel Flags and Such

Around the time of the Civil War centenary, in the early 1960s, many, many Southerners and others in the United States regarded such things as Confederate battle flags and the playing of 'Dixie' as quaint, almost comical relics of a conflict that was, fortunately, safely in the past. Joke phrases such as, 'Save your Confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again!' were quite appropriately regarded as jokes, even by Americans whose ancestors had 'C.S.A.' carved on their tombstones. Alas, Southerner (and Nobel laureate) William Faulkner was right when he said, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' The Civil War returns to haunt each generation in the United States, and continues to be a politically-fraught issue even in the 21st Century.

The main reason why universities in the South have found themselves under fire when their marching bands play 'Dixie' in modern times is that the choice to perform it can be seen as deliberately provocative. Just as the inclusion of Confederate trappings such as flag elements were often adopted in state flags long after the Civil War, one assumes for political reasons, the inclusion of 'Dixie' in a university repertoire could be read as exclusionist – particularly when the band only started playing it in the 1940s. When Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist routinely included 'Dixie' in a judicial singalong, African American jurists refused to attend. Obviously, they felt the song was being used in an intentionally offensive way.

People concerned with 'preserving heritage' – which, oddly, so seldom includes restoring important sites or supporting historical archaeology – sometimes lament the 'loss' of songs like 'Dixie', although copies of the music are in plentiful supply7. A popular compromise seems to have been to sing 'Dixie' in conjunction with some song of the 'opposite' persuasion, such as 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'. Southerner Elvis Presley made a habit of performing 'An American Trilogy', which combines a doleful version of 'Dixie' with the 'Battle Hymn' and 'All My Trials', a Bahamian ballad which was popular among protest singers of the 1960s and has nothing at all to do with the Civil War.

Would Daniel Decatur Emmett have understood all this fuss? Probably. After all, as a Northerner from Ohio, he had experienced first-hand the politically-charged misunderstandings about 'Dixie'. We'll let his biographer have the last word. He's telling about Dan Emmett's farewell tour, undertaken when the musician was in his 80s:

When the Al G Field Minstrels reached the South, Emmett was frequently the star attraction. A great ovation was accorded him at Richmond. Ladies showered flowers upon him and representatives of the first families of Virginia8 paid their respects. While here a somewhat amusing incident occurred. He ventured out one bright morning, unobserved as he thought, to visit points of interest in the city. He paused before the Stonewall Jackson monument and raised his hat to shield his eyes from the sunlight while he read the inscription. He was somewhat surprised to read in an evening paper an item with large headlines, running something like this: 'Daniel Decatur Emmett, the author of Dixie, like the true Southron9 that he is, bowed with uncovered head before the monument of Stonewall Jackson.'
- Charles Burleigh Galbreath, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Author of 'Dixie', Columbus, Ohio, 1904, p23.
1The phrase 'Jim Crow' later became a politically charged term of opprobrium, and with good reason. Even after emancipation, states in the US South used racially-based laws to enforce segregation and deprive African American citizens of their constitutional rights. These segregation laws, called Jim Crow laws, were upheld in the 1890s by the US Supreme Court in the infamous Plessy v Ferguson decision. It wasn't until the 1954 landmark decision in Brown v Board of Education that segregation began to be legally dismantled throughout the country. But those old 'Jim Crow' laws took their name from the first minstrel act.2An illegal escape network for slaves fleeing the South. 'Conductors' on the Underground Railroad helped thousands of fugitives to freedom in Canada, although they were violating the law and risking their own liberty to do so. 'Station masters' ran safe houses along the way.3The election of 1860 was as hotly contested, and as divisive, as the US elections of 2000 and 2016. The 1860 election resulted in the US Civil War, which is why people in the US are wont to tread carefully in dodgy election years. Over 600,000 people died in the US Civil War.4The misspelling of 'Pocahontas' is in the original. And we don't want to think about what this play was like.5Soldiers in very fanciful costumes, with sashes and fezzes, comme ça.6Whether 'Dixie' has ever been sung defiantly to Nazis is not known, however.7It is also questionable why knowing the words to 'Dixie' should be more important to US history students than, say, being able to sing the Erie Canal boat song.8'First Families of Virginia' is a thing. First Families, or FFV, have ancestors who came from England in the early 17th Century. During the days of race-based segregation, FFV members qualified for the 'Pocahontas Exemption' to the race laws: if they were related to Pocahontas (Matoaka), they were still considered white due to their historical importance and high social standing.9=Southerner.

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