“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, Look away, look away look away Dixie land.
In Dixie land where I was born, early on a frosty mornin’, Look away, look away look away Dixie land.
Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray! In Dixie land I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie, Away, away, away down south in Dixie.”
Every Southerner knows this song, “Dixie.” And so did ancestors going back to the Civil War. It’s second nature to be able to sing along and not miss a word. But did you know it was written by a Northerner? And, it was born nine months before South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and two years before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter.
Little did songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett know that his tune and words would become the National Anthem for the Confederacy when he wrote it in March of 1859. Emmett was simply writing a song for his employer’s upcoming blackface minstrel show. It was something he had been doing for nearly thirty years, since he was a teenager.
He got inspiration as he looked out his New York apartment window at the rainy, dreary weather. That single line “I wish I was in Dixie” played over in his mind, and soon it would be stuck in the minds of many across the country.
The song became very popular in the North. But most Southerners cared little about minstrel shows and were unaware of the song until late 1860, just about the time South Carolina became the first state to secede.
Once “Dixie” hit the South, it caught on like wildfire – even though it was written by a Yankee. Some recalled how it “spontaneously” became the Confederate anthem and noted the “wild-fire rapidity” of its “spread over the whole South.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis unofficially endorsed it when the bandleader, who know nothing about the song, played at his inauguration in February 1861. He never formally endorsed “Dixie” but it’s been said Davis favored it as the South’s anthem. And he did own a music box that played the tune.
Within a few months song publishers reported sales “were altogether unprecedented.” Robert E. Lee tried to buy a copy for his wife, but found there were none left in all of Virginia.
Emmett had written scores of tunes, but became most well known for “Dixie.” This fact did not please him much. He reportedly told a fellow minstrel: “If I had known to what use they (Southerners) were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d have written it.”
Well, Mr. Emmet, you did write it! And Abraham Lincoln liked it a lot. Despite ties to the Confederacy the song was one of his favorites, and he was happy to reclaim it after the war.
And on that note, you ain’t just whistlin’ “Dixie!”