Is it true what they say about Dixie?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sun Nov 11 19:39:17 UTC 2007

The distinguished English journalist William Howard Russell, the man who broke the news about the charge of the Light Brigade, later covered the Confederacy for the London _Times_.  On June 18, 1861, Russell noted what he had heard about the origin of the word "Dixie," apparently from Confederate officers in West Tennessee, some "sixty miles above Memphis" :

  1861 William Howard Russell _Pictures of Southern Life, Social, Political, and Military. Written for the London Times_ (N.Y.: James G. Gregory) 125:

  On landing, the band had played "God Save the Queen" and "Dixie's Land;" on returning, we had the "Marseillaise" and the national anthem of the Southern Confederation; and by way of parenthesis, it may be added, if you do not already know the fact, that "Dixie's Land" is a synonym for heaven. It appears that there was once a good planter, named "Dixie," who died at some period unknown, to the intense grief of his animated property. They found expression for their sorrow in song, and consoled themselves by clamoring in verse for their removal to the land to which Dixie had departed, and where, probably, the revered spirit would be greatly surprised to find himself in their company. Whether they were ill-treated after he died, and thus had reason to deplore his removal, or merely desired heaven in the abstract, nothing known enables me to assert. But Dixie's Land is now generally taken to mean the seceded states, where Mr. Dixie certainly is not, at this present writing.
 The song and air are the composition of the organized African association, for the advancement of music and their own profit, which sings in New York, and it may be as well to add, that in all my tour in the South, I heard little melody from lips black or white, and only once heard negroes singing in the fields.

  (Thanks, Google Books!)

  (The assertion that "Dixie" was composed by an otherwise unidentified "organized African association" is baseless.  The blackface minstrel Daniel Emmett was known to be the composer. He first performed the song, in New York City, in 1859.)

  Russell's informant may have gotten his information from a letter said to have been printed in the New Orleans _Delta_.  The _New Hampshire Sentinel_ of June 27, 1861, p. 4, credited that source with the following (Thanks, America's Historical Newspapers!):

  "The truth is that 'Dixie' is an indigenous northern negro refrain, as common to the writer as the lamp-posts in New York city seventy or seventy-five years ago.  It was one of the every-day allusions of boys at that time in all their out-door sports. And no one ever heard of Dixie's Land being other than Manhattan Island until recently....When slavery existed in New York, one 'Dixy' owned a large tract of land on Manhattan Island and a large number of slaves, and the increase in the abolition sentiment caused an emigration of the slaves to more thorough and secure slave sections, and the negroes who were thus set off (many being born there), naturally looked back to their old homes, where they had lived in clover, with feelings of regret, as they could not imagine any place like Dixy's. Hence it became synonymous with an ideal locality, combining ease, combining comfort and material happiness of every description. In those days negro singing and minstrelsy were in their
 infancy, and any subject that could be wrought into a ballad was eagerly picked up. This was the case with 'Dixie.' It originated in New York and assumed the proportions of a song there. In its travels it has been enlarged, and has 'gathered moss.' It has picked up a 'note' here and there. A 'chorus' has been added to it, and from an indistinct 'chant' of two or three notes it has become an elaborate melody. But the fact that it is not a southern song 'cannot be rubbed out.' The fallacy is so popular to the contrary that I have thus been at pains to state the real origin of it."

  More substantial is this, courtesy of Early American Periodicals:

    1844_The New World: A Weekly Family Journal of Popular Literature, Science, Art and News_ IX (Dec. 28) 803-04:  "Sequel to 'The Christmas Carol,'" by Lincoln Ramble, Esq.... Phew! away go puddings, goose, and dessert, and here we are, in the midst of a joyous group twisting themselves into all the whirling and snake-like movements of a rollicking dance. Does n't Old Fezziwig figure here like some planet that, bent upon a spree, joslled [sic] against all other planets in his system, crossing and recrossing their orbits, playing, "Dixey's Land," in the region of space.

  This passage tends to confirm the 1872 claim in the _New York Weekly_, cited in HDAS, that "During any time within the last eighty years the term 'Dixie's Land' has been in use with the New York boys while engaged in the game of 'tag.'"  Further confirmation appears in the San Francisco _Daily Evening Bulletin_ (July 30, 1861), p. 2:

  "The Old Game of 'Dixie's Land' [To the] EDITOR BULLETIN:- That the philosopher and antiquarian, who seeks to discover the origin of 'Dixie's Land,'  may be placed upon the track of discovery, the writer submits a few remarks upon a sport of his early childhood - often indulged in - many decades past, in the city of New York....

  "On some sidewalk having a handsome stoop - such, for illustration, as Lady Barken in Clinton street, near Col. Rutgers'; or in Bond street, at Sam Ward's; or Dr. Francis's, or Philip Lione's - a boy and girl would establish themselves as Dixie and Dixie's wife. Imaginary lines would form the boundaries on the North and South, and the opposite party would attempt crossing the sacred domain, shouting as they entered upon it, 'I am on Dixie's land, and Dixie isn't home.'  Soon, to their surprise, Dixie and his wife would rush to capture them, and as their position was in the centre they would soon succeed. As each one was caught he aided Dixie, and soon the whole opposing force was brought within the fold to share whatever had been united by them as the reward of entering Dixie's Land. --[Signed] OLD MAN."

  To this the editor of the _Bulletin_ adds, "A game similar to the one described above has ben played by the boys, from time immemorial, in Scotland. The usual cry there used, however, is 'I am on Teddy's  [perh. 'Toddy's' - JL] ground - Teddy cannot catch me.'"

  Even if there was a wealthy N.Y. metropolitan area {Dick, Dicky, Dickie, Dix, Dixey, Dixie, Dixy,  Dickson, Dixon} in the 1780s or '90s, the story of his nostalgic slaves and their song can be dismissed as speculation.  But the origin in some local reference of the kids' usage of "Dixey's Land" so early as 1844 - or even fifty years before that -  is entirely possible.


Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam?  Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list