What Dixie Really Means

The band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks has changed its name in light of the growing rejection of racist symbols and phrases.

The trio initially offered only a terse statement on its new website: “We want to meet this moment.” (Getty / The Atlantic)

Yesterday, the Dixie Chicks announced that they have excised the Dixie from their band name, becoming simply The Chicks. They’ve followed the lead of their country-music compatriots Lady Antebellum, now known as Lady A. For both groups, the rechristening serves a symbolic purpose of disowning romanticized images of the slavery-era South before the Civil War. As Black Lives Matter protests spark a national reckoning, there’s been a growing reappraisal and outright rejection of racist public symbols—whether they be Confederate flags, statues of enslavers or Confederate generals, corporate brands and logos, or other items in the shared American lexicon.

In the case of Lady Antebellum, the band said it was “regretful and embarrassed” for not having previously considered what the word antebellum evokes: “We did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery.” After the group changed its name to Lady A, the writer Jeremy Helligar wrote an opinion piece for Variety in which he called on the Dixie Chicks to follow suit. Helligar called the word Dixie “the epitome of white America,” observing, “For many Black people, it conjures a time and a place of bondage.” Although the decision to rebrand as The Chicks seems to have been in response to criticism by Helligar and others, the trio initially offered only a terse statement on its new website: “We want to meet this moment.”

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.”)

Still, that evidence comes after Emmett’s song was already popular. But Lighter also found much earlier proof that New York children played a game called “Dixie’s Land.” In the December 28, 1844, issue of New York’s The New World, a writer using the pen name Lincoln Ramble, Esq. published a sequel to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with the line, “Doesn’t Old Fezziwig figure here like some planet that, bent upon a spree, jostled all other planets in his system, crossing and recrossing their orbits, playing, ‘Dixey’s Land,’ in the regions of space?”

In 2017, Popik managed to outdo Lighter’s discovery by finding an even earlier reference to the game, again authored by Ramble in The New World. A July 20, 1844 article about summer in New York City includes this: “The open doors and windows exhibit old gentlemen with very light clothing sleepily winking to the evening breeze; the boisterous children scream and throng about the pumps, or play at ‘Dixey’s Land’ on the newly washed pavement.”

Based on all of these new findings, we can reconstruct a plausible, if circuitous, scenario for the real birth of Dixie. New York City children took the name of the Mason-Dixon line and converted it into a game involving their own demarcation between North and South, with Dixon given the familiar nickname of Dixie. Then Emmett, who was living in New York at the time that he wrote his minstrel songs, could have picked up on “Dixie’s Land” from the game. Emmett may very well have had other sources of inspiration, given that, as Wilton and others have observed, “Dixie” was also the name of a blackface character in a minstrel skit dating back to 1850. But the North-South delineation used by children at play currently stands as the likeliest source for Dixie.

Those children, as it happens, lived in the North and seem to have inspired a northern songwriter to create an idealized vision of the antebellum South. That contradiction was a common one in the vexed tradition of minstrel music: Stephen Foster, for instance, wrote songs in the 1840s and 1850s with southern themes, such as “Old Folks at Home” (a.k.a. “Swanee River”), without ever visiting the South. But Emmett’s “Dixie” accrued its own historical baggage with its inextricable link to the Confederacy and all it stood for, including slavery. And ultimately, that is all that matters when reappraising Dixie from a 21st-century vantage point. If that label is, as Helligar writes, “a celebration of a Southern tradition that is indivisible from Black slaves and those grand plantations where they were forced to toil for free,” then it’s long past time for the celebration to end.