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Dixie, to be sure, had a long, problematic history as a label for the American South well before this current political moment. In fact, its very origins have been a source of long-standing contention.
One undebatable historical fact is that Dixie was popularized by the song “Dixie’s Land,” composed by Daniel Emmett, an Ohio-born member of the blackface minstrel troupe known as Bryant’s Minstrels. The song was first performed in New York City in April 1859, and Emmett published the sheet music the following year, with the familiar chorus “I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!” The song was a tremendous success and quickly became something of an anthem for Confederate forces when the Civil War began.
But “Dixie’s Land” wasn’t even the first minstrel song by Emmett to refer to the South as “Dixie.” In March 1859, a month before “Dixie’s Land” had its debut, Bryant’s Minstrels performed a song called “Johnny Roach” about a man who escapes slavery on the Underground Railroad but still pines for his home in the South: “Gib me de place called Dixie’s Land.” As the author David Wilton noted in an article about the history of Dixie, “Emmett never claimed to have coined the word,” but rather “learned the term during his travels as an itinerant musician.”
But where would Emmett have learned it? Numerous theories have been advanced, but most lack any hard evidence. The word sleuth Barry Popik has investigated many of these claims over the years and has debunked them by spending hours poring over old newspaper archives. For instance, a historical marker in New Orleans commemorates the supposed “Birthplace of ‘Dixie’” where the Citizens State Bank stood from 1835 to 1924. “In its early days, the bank issued its own $10 bank note, with the French word ‘Dix’ for ‘ten’ printed on the note’s face,” the marker reads. “As this currency became widespread, people referred to its place of origin as ‘the land of the Dix,’ which eventually shortened to ‘Dixieland.’” The only problem is, as Popik concluded by scouring newspaper databases, not a single contemporary account from New Orleans backs up this notion.
A much more promising line of inquiry relates Dixie to the Mason-Dixon line, the demarcation between northern and southern states named after the surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the 1770s. Jonathan Lighter, the editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, pieced together evidence that connects the Mason-Dixon line to Dixie via an unexpected intermediary: a children’s game played in New York City.
In Lighter’s dictionary entry for Dixie, he had previously noted a claim from 1872 in the New York Weekly: “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.’” In 2007, Lighter made some discoveries bolstering this claim. An 1861 letter to the editor of San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin explained the New York game in more detail: “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.’” (The Bulletin editor noted its similarity to an old Scottish game using “Toddy’s ground” rather than “Dixie’s land.”)