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.

The Appropriation of Cultures

221_PercivalEverett-WritersatWork-interview
Percival Everett

Listen to a wonderful live reading of Percival Everett’s 1996 short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”:

This is the song, “Dixie,” that Everett’s character Daniel sings. It was written in 1859, and was adopted, with additional lyrics, as the national anthem of the Confederacy.

Perhaps the way that Daniel sings “Dixie” sounded something like jazz singer René Marie’s version. As 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.

In their book Way Up North In Dixie, Howard and Judith Sacks make a the case that “Dixie” was actually written by a black man, a fact not widely known by those who have adopted the song as an anthem for the “Lost Cause” (see the excerpt in your course reading packet).

As Rhiannon Giddens says, it’s complicated.

Here, Rhiannon Giddens talks about the history of the banjo, which was transplanted from West Africa to the Caribbean to the southern U.S.

Giddens playing an original song with banjo, “Julie,” based on the memoir of a nineteenth-century slave — a genre that John Jeremiah Sullivan calls “neo-slave ballads.”

Percival Everett talks about what he calls the myth of race:

And then, there’s producer John Sims’s “AfroDixie Remixes” project, which he describes as “playing ‘Dixie’ in the key of black.”

Because, as Gary Clark, Jr., notes, this land belongs to African Americans.