January 10, 2016

Dixie: Elvis Presley — An Anthem Of The American South


Dixie. Elvis Presley. (Written by Daniel Emmett — reached No. 8 on the charts, as American Trilogy, June 17, 1972)

Everything about Dixie — the song, the word and certainly the place — is fiercely debated.

Dixie, as a toponym to describe the American south, may have derived from Jeremiah Dixon who, with Charles Mason, surveyed the line that bears their names.
More likely it was born of the French-named currency in Louisiana whose $10 notes bore the legend “Dix”, French for 10, and were known as Dixies, and the area in which they circulated Dixieland.

The song that became — and remains — the anthem of the south was written by a northerner: Daniel Decatur Emmett.

Only The Star-Spangled Banner — its American lyrics ironically married to an English melody — is sung more often but, arguably, with less enthusiasm.

Dixie, probably first known as I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land, began life in the 1850s as blackface minstrel show “walk-around” — a song sung by the cast to close the performance, during which every one of the variety players would make their farewell.

It might be the first of the so-called coon songs, although that term had yet to gain currency — and it would be decades before they were understood to be unpardonable racist slurs. 

The lyrics to Dixie were written in a manner meant to mock the speech patterns of slaves, depicting them as ignorant but happy buffoons.

Away down south in de land ob cotton
Old times dar am not forgotten
Look away! Look away!
Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in
Early on a frosty mornin’
Look away! Look away!
Look away! Dixie Land. 

Its famous chorus carried on in a similar vein:

Den I wish I was in Dixie
Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
To lib and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

Emmett was born in Ohio in 1815 and learned to play the drums, banjo and violin.

From an early age he perfected exaggerated techniques of impersonating black slaves and incorporated them into an act that he worked into various minstrel troupes. Aged 27 he formed his own troupe — the Virginia Minstrels — who performed his popular songs.

These days blackface performers are associated almost exclusively with turn-of-the-century American entertainment and later with Al Jolson.

But by the time of Jolson’s worldwide fame he was using it as a weapon against bigotry, although the Ku Klux Klan appears to have missed that point.

However, blackface had been a European phenomenon for years, where it was often used with sophistication and sympathy to describe black people’s lives.

Interestingly, Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels were a hit in the US but received a lukewarm reception on a British tour in 1843.

It is not exactly clear when Emmett wrote Dixie — probably 1859. It was soon the most popular song in the country.

It was played at the inauguration ceremony for the only Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and following the ­defeat of the south, the president of the reunited US, Abraham ­Lincoln, called for it to be played in Washington.

“I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name,” Lincoln said to the crowd of perhaps 3000 celebrating the end of four years of costly civil war in April 1865.

“Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought Dixie one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the attorney-general, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favour me with its performance!”

The band played Dixie.

Four days later Lincoln was shot dead by actor and Confederate ­supporter John Wilkes Booth.

Dixie found a new life when Texan-born songwriter Mickey Newbury inventively combined it with the well-known faux spiritual All My Trials, popularised by the Kingston Trio in 1959, and the Union Army marching song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, for his 1971 album Frisco Mabel Joy.

Not many people bought Frisco Mabel Joy, but Elvis Presley did. He was soon singing what Newbury called An American Trilogy as an overwrought show-stopping finale to his Las Vegas shows, and often did so for the rest of his life.

Unlike most people approaching the song, Elvis — who had been born in Tupelo, Mississippi, at 4.35am on January 8, 1935 — could sing with conviction the words “in Dixie’s land where I was born early on one frosty morn”.

And he did indeed “live and die in Dixie”.

By Alan Howe
With many thanks to The Australian



Good news for fans: 62 disc Elvis Presley Collection to be released.






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