Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Anita of And Baby Makes Seven blogs this morning about the effects of the same weather system on Charlotte, NC, and noted that her husband spent much of the past few days driving around nurses and other healthcare workers who were not comfortable driving in ice and snow. "I think that has to be a southern thing," she wrote, but it's not.
When I lived in Northampton, MA, there were frequent wintertime calls for people with four-wheel-drive vehicles to help get healthcare workers and patients to/from hospitals. In her comments, I noted "Probably more people need the help down South than up North, but the call to action exists on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line."
Now here is a sign of how my mind works. Immediately after writing that, I started to wonder whether or not the use of the term "Dixie" to refer to the South had anything to do with the Mason-Dixon Line. I know both Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were English, and their work was completed long before the song "Dixie Land" was written, but the Dixon/Dixie similarity caused me to wonder.
Checking the Shorter OED, I found "origin: unknown." The American Heritage definition is even less helpful: in Dixie2, which describes the song "Dixie Land," the etymology is given as "after Dixie1," but Dixie1 is without an etymology.
Digging around online, there seem to be three competing etymologies for Dixie, all of which are at best questionable.
- after $10 banknotes issued by Citizens' Bank of Louisiana in New Orleans (the bills, printed in French and English, had dix (French for ten) written on the reverse),
- after Jeremiah Dixon, and
- after a Mr. Dixy (or Dixie), a New York slaveholder.
The AFU & Urban Legends Archive cites the earliest references for Dixie, according to Webster's New World Dictionary of American English, as the song "Dixie Land" (1859) and the name of a character in an unnamed 1850 minstrel play.
On the H-South discussion list, historian Cheryl Thurber wrote that Dixie came from the idea of a mythic place, perhaps connected to a Mr. Dixy to provide a grounding in reality.
... Emmett himself said when asked: that there was a kindly master who freed/sold his slaves and they longed to go back to Dixie's Land. This was the most widely used interpretation in the mid-to-late 19th century, although sometimes with a specific place as "historic" accuracy. This is in fact the correct origin, but it is a fairly complex story. ... The word was used prior to the song as a minstrel show male name, there are indications of "real" (as opposed to coaled) Black men having been named Dixie, and African-American use of the term. The idea of a mythic place has had long lasting impact in how the term continued to be applied. The word was attached to the South after the song, and it spread quite rapidly so that by very early in the War the South was known as Dixie much to the alarm of the Southern elite.Volkslieder aus allen Ländern (Folksongs of the World) has lyrics and a little history for "Dixie Land" in its collection.
NPR's "Present at the Creation" series included a segment on Dixie in which Thurber notes that "the lyrics of 'Dixie' embody a 'slave idea of paradise.' 'This was an imaginary paradise,' Thurber says, perhaps associated with a community of runaway slaves. 'Certainly the concept is one that Emmett did adopt from African-American slaves.'" In the same segment, Judith and Howard Sacks advance the theory that Emmett learned of this idea of Dixie from a pair of black musicians, Ben and Lew Snowden.
Steve Levin, a writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has a decent article putting the song into context, the problems associated with performing it nowadays, and also going a bit into its history and the etymology of the word "Dixie," basically surmising that the origin is unclear, but the minstral tradition is its most likely source.
© 2003–2010 T. Carter Ross