While “Dixie” (you know, “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten…”) might seem as inseparable from the South as collard greens and barbecue, the song was actually written in New York by an Ohio native.
In 1859, Daniel Decatur Emmett was working as a composer for Bryant’s Minstrels, a touring blackface minstrel show. Over his lifetime, Emmett told the story of the song’s creation with wildly varying details (sometimes, he claimed to have written the song in just a few minutes, sometimes it was a single rainy afternoon and still other times the composition took up to a week), but a few things are certain. The leader of the show wanted a new song to perform before the closing number of their next performance, so Emmett holed up in his hotel room and penned “Dixie.” It was performed for the first time on April 4, 1859, and was such a hit with audiences in its early performances that the group bumped it back in the program and made it the grand finale.
For some reason, there was a delay in registering the copyright for the song, and knockoff versions began to pop up among different minstrel acts. Touring groups spread the different variations around, and it quickly became a favorite across the country. At another point in American history, “Dixie” might have gone the way of many other hit songs and faded away over a few months. The year after it debuted, though, southern states began to declare their secession from the United States, and as the song spread through the South, it fell on the ears of a people and a new country in need of an anthem.
“Dixie” seemed a natural fit as a soundtrack for secession. It painted a quaint picture of the South and plantation life, and came complete with a catchy slogan of defiance and patriotism: “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand/To live and die in Dixie.” The Southern secessionists soon made the song their own, despite its Yankee origins, and played it in between speeches and votes when delegates met to vote for secession in Charleston, South Carolina.
Early the following year, Hermann Arnold, a Montgomery, Alabama bandleader, was tasked with arranging the music for Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as the president of the Confederate States of America. Arnold had no idea what to do. He wanted something “patriotic sounding,” but almost every song he could dig up had something to do with, or reminded him of, the North or the Union. His wife came to his rescue and suggested “Dixie.” The band performed it as a military quickstep at the inauguration, and its status as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy was cemented (though a national anthem was never officially chosen, Davis later told Arnold that his arrangement of “Dixie” would make a fine choice).
To be fair, not every Southerner was so enamored with the song. When asked if "Dixie" was on the way to becoming the South's “national air”, secession activist Edmund Ruffin could only sigh, "I am afraid so.” After the Civil War, the bandleader for the 30th Virginia Infantry admitted that he never played “Dixie” unless he was forced to.
In response to its perceived deficiencies—like the exaggerated “slave speak” pronunciations of some words, jokey tone and Northern provenance—some Southern creative types tried to improve the song or shroud its point of origin and make it into a more respectable Confederate song. New lyrics about the war were drafted, new (Southern) roots were invented and hidden meanings (It’s an allegory about secession, the Richmond Dispatch claimed) were “uncovered.”
None of this sat very well with Emmett, a staunch Union supporter. “If I’d known to what use they were going to put my song,” he reportedly said, “I’ll be damned if I’d have written it.” He eventually came around on the song and learned to appreciate the South’s embrace of his work. After the war, he went on farewell tour and sang the song across the region.
While “Dixie” is still synonymous with the South, it was eventually reclaimed by the North in some minds. After he heard of the Confederates’ surrender at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln asked the White House band to play the song. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he said. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but we have fairly captured it.”