In the 19th Century, America’s most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show, a variety show featuring white men in blackface taking on the mannerisms of the African-American slave. The most popular song to come out of minstrelsy was ‘Dixie,’ written by Dan Emmett in 1859. The song became a national phenomenon in the years prior to the Civil War, becoming the defacto national anthem of the southern confederacy.
Minstrelsy laid the foundation for numerous American entertainments, including ragtime and vaudeville–and ‘Dixie’ never truly went away. Jim Crowe laws–laws themselves named after a blackface character–took hold in the south in the early 20th Century. For generations of white Americans, ‘Dixie’ became a potent symbol of a mythical, idyllic southern past and the poisonous idea of white supremacy. African-Americans learned to hate and fear the song.
During the civil rights era of the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, African-Americans increasingly protested the song on college campuses, where it had become entrenched as a fight song at many universities. Students risked life and limb to stand against the song and the song was banned by many schools in the 60’s and 70’s.
In recent decades, though, new research has shed light on the origins of the song ‘Dixie.’ Did ‘Dixie’ spring from the mind of Emmett on a cold night in New York or did he learn the tune from the Snowdens, a family of former slaves? The truth about America’s most dangerous song is as complex as America itself.