Way Up North in Dixie

“Dixie,” or “Dixieland,” are names used to refer to the American South. The song “(I Wish I Was In) Dixie’s Land,” more commonly known just as “Dixie,” was written in 1859 and published by a white blackface entertainer named Daniel Emmett. However, the book Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Howard and Judith Sacks) suggests, there is strong evidence that “Dixie” was written by a Black musician from Ohio, Thomas Snowden.

This is especially ironic since “Dixie,” with some additional lyrics, was adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy in the Civil War. There is a variety of viewpoints about whether the song should be performed today.

Nevertheless, some modern-day African American musicians are reclaiming the song’s Black roots. As jazz singer René Marie says:

Why should I let someone’s misuse of a song determine whether I like it? I want to reclaim it as my mine — I’m from the South, too . . . But instead of singing it in this happy, up-tempo way it’s usually played, I’m going to put some grit in there and some dirt, and sing it from the perspective of my people.

And multimedia artist John Sims (above) has produced an album called “The AfroDixie Remixes” which he describes as “playing ‘Dixie’ in the key of black.”

Some Black artists are working to reclaim the music and instruments of minstrelsy. Rhiannon Giddens explains why she plays a replica of a minstrel banjo.

Rocker Gary Clark, Jr.’s 2020 song “This Land” is a response to and an argument against the kind of reclamation project that Giddens and other musicians are involved in. As Clark notes, this land belongs to African Americans.

The important 19th-century Black American guitarist and composer Justin Holland (1819-1887, above), who was also a civil rights activist, wrote “Variations on Dixie’s Land” for guitar. I can’t find any videos of it, but music professor Paul Sweeny has performed it.

Why do you think he did this?

Here’s a video of a performance of another of Holland’s arrangements, the Rochester Schottische, originally written for piano and about Rochester, New York, where Holland’s friend Frederick Douglass lived.

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