Origins of Famous Songs: I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land

About the origin of the famous song I Wish I was in Dixie's Land or Dixie, the national anthem of the Confederate States during the Civil War.


(or just DIXIE) Dan D. Emmett 1859

This song, which has come to be a kind of symbol of the South, is known and loved and sung all over the U.S. However, it was written by a Northerner to enliven the show given by Bryant's Minstrels on the New York stage.

Minstrel shows in which white men in black-face makeup did a program of song, dance, and comedy bits were popular in the mid-1800s, and Dan D. Emmett wrote many songs for such shows. He was a member of Bryant's Minstrels in 1859 when he was asked for a new "walk-around" number in which a few soloists would sing and dance at the front of the stage with the rest of the company, perhaps 6 or 8 men, at the back of the stage. "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land" was the result, reportedly written over a single weekend. At any rate it was 1st performed at Mechanics' Hall on Broadway on April 4, 1859.

The song became a great success as time went on. Emmett sold all his rights in it to the publishing house of Firth, Pond and Company in New York City for $300. There were also editions brought out which failed to give Emmett credit as the composer.

Both North and South claimed the song, but during the Civil War it became almost a national anthem for the Confederate States, and it was given a rousing performance at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as Confederate President. Southern sympathizers played and sang "Dixie" to embarrass and harass Northerners, especially in Washington, D.C. However, President Lincoln was very fond of the song--he'd heard it 1st in a minstrel show in Chicago in the early spring of 1860--and at the close of the Civil War, he surprised people by immediately requesting that "Dixie" be played.

There is an unsettled dispute over the origin of the word "Dixie," with 3 possibilities put forth. One story has it that "Dixie's Land" was the name given a farm in Manhattan by some slaves sent to Charleston by the farm's owner, Johann Dixie. This story is largely discredited, and the word's origin in the dix or $10 banknote issued in New Orleans at one time also seems improbable. The most plausible source of the term, which seems originally to have been used for Negroes and later came to mean the whole South, is the Mason-Dixon line which was the boundary between free and slave States before the Civil War.

Not only is "Dixie" a truly American song, but the lively melody has been used by serious composers wishing to give an American flavor to a piece. It was one of the tunes incorporated by the Swiss-born American composer, Ernest Bloch, in his large symphonic "rhapsody in 3 parts" entitled America.

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