Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem
© 1993 by Howard L. Sack and Judith Rose Sacks. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
Living With Dixie
In 1993 Smithsonian Institution Press published Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem. The book tells the story of the Snowdens, an African American musical family whose members had traveled from slavery in Maryland to freedom in rural Knox County, Ohio, in the early nineteenth century. Ellen Cooper and Thomas Snowden were the first recorded marriage of African Americans in the region, in 1835. Farmers by trade, the Snowden parents formed a family band with their six children, who sang, danced, and played fiddle, banjo, guitar, tambourine, and bones for audiences throughout the region from the 1850s into the first decades of the twentieth century.
As remarkable as their musical longevity was, the family has another, more dramatic claim on our interest: They offer insight into the very origins of that complex, often troubling element of America’s musical history known as blackface minstrelsy. For nearly one hundred years, oral history and written records have linked this family of talented African American musicians to a pioneer of blackface minstrelsy, Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1905), himself a native of the Snowdens’ hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio. In particular, community lore asserts that the Snowdens were Emmett’s source for “Dixie,” the famous song now associated with the Confederacy. The song was first performed for a national audience in 1859, during a performance in New York City by Bryant’s Minstrels, a troupe that included Emmett as a musician and composer. In a rural Ohio graveyard not far from Emmett’s own burial site, in the Snowden family plot, a gravestone declares:
They Taught “Dixie” to Dan Emmett
Initially drawn to the project by this remarkable assertion, we also grasped an opportunity to investigate significant yet underexamined elements of nineteenth-century American life: the exchange of musical traditions across the color line, the black experience in the old Northwest before and after the Civil War, and the movement of music from traditional to popular culture.
Immediately upon publication, we discovered that our book carried what in the media is known as a “high concept,” a provocative idea that can be expressed in a single sentence: “Blacks wrote ‘Dixie.’” Such an idea disrupts common understandings, because “Dixie” is an artifact from the blackface minstrel stage, and one can hardly think of another American song that inspires so much inflamed sentiment concerning American race relations. With such a startling premise, it was little wonder that our work swiftly attracted enormous media coverage. Starting days before the book’s formal release, we found ourselves besieged with requests for interviews. Stories appeared on front pages and in editorials in nearly every paper in this country, as well as across the globe. We were guests on radio programs coast-to-coast, including broadcasts on NPR, the BBC, and the CBC. Especially pleasing, if bizarre, was our coverage on MTV: a nineteenth-century photograph of Ben and Lou Snowden playing fiddle and banjo was displayed full screen in a report on the channel’s “Music in the News” segment. Even Trivial Pursuit, the popular trivia board game, issued a game-card question based on this public interest: “What Southern anthem does a recent book claim was written by blacks?” (Answer: “Dixie”). This amazing publicity blitz, coupled with the many personal calls and letters we received, spurred us to reflect on how an important historical artifact associated with minstrelsy “plays” in contemporary American culture.
Much of the initial response to our work focused on whether it now was appropriate to sing “Dixie,” in light of our revelation of possible connection to African American musical sources. Bill Ferris, director of the Center for Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi, told a newspaper reporter that “the real issue is, what does this song do to people today? What it does is divide. You can say it was written by a black man, but that doesn’t cut much with people who see it as a symbol of their slavery.” Mike Dejoie, a spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, concurred that the song’s possible black authorship “isn’t enough reason for African Americans to embrace the song as their own...The song is denigrating to our heritage. What it represents is the Old South and oppression.” A Miami columnist presented a contrasting view. In an essay assailing examples of historical revisionism, including the proposition that “a Northern black family probably wrote ‘Dixie,’” editorialist Howard Kleinberg protested attempts to banish symbols of Southern history.
But the varied responses to our book, like those to the phenomenon of minstrelsy itself, resist simple dichotomization. According to the Omaha Sunday World-Herald, an Atlanta poll stimulated by our book discovered that “blacks are hardly united on the issue...When asked whether ‘Dixie’ reminded them of racial conflict or Southern pride, 40% of blacks answered ‘racial conflict’ and 48% responded ‘Southern pride.’” A call we received from the director of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans further impressed upon us the complexities surrounding the song. Describing his organization as “an historical society,” he wanted to secure a copy of our book to give to the keynote speaker at their upcoming convention--an African American discussing the role of blacks in the Confederacy.
Irony is surely a key element in the claim that African Americans authored “Dixie,” and irony seems to follow the book to the present moment. A vicious use of irony, rivaling minstrelsy at its worst, came from a reporter for the South African Sunday Times. In an article entitled “US white supremacist tune was penned by a black family” the author relished the chance to poke fun at American racism: “It’s enough to make Ku-Klux-Klansmen burn their robes in anger. And that’s exactly what they are doing since discovering that the anthem of the Old South...was written by a black family...‘I don’t know what to make of it all,’ says George Blanford of Alabama, a KKK organizer.” A more even-tempered editorial, this time in the Milwaukee Journal, proclaimed, “The rip-off of black music by white singers is now old news...What’s new is the realization that the thievery predates the Civil War, affecting none other than the Confederacy’s sacred song.” The editorial concludes, “But the deepest irony is that black Northerners gave white Southerners their anthem. The historically ignored contribution of blacks to American life turns up in the darndest places.”
Beyond the debate over the song’s origins, the story of the Snowden family stimulated a strong response from African Americans proud of their history. We received a call from a woman in San Francisco who, having heard a radio broadcast about our work, purchased the book for her ten-year-old daughter, who was just beginning to explore her heritage. At a lecture we presented in Charles County, Maryland--home of Ellen Snowden, mother of the Ohio family--we learned that local African Americans took particular pride in the story, perhaps especially because their community of Nanjemoy is derided as run-down, backward, and insignificant. A young woman from Pittsburgh wrote us after reading a feature about the book in Jet magazine: “My father was a Snowden. The Picture shown in Jet was scary when I seen it. [It looked like] my Dad when he was young... My Dad was a musician in his day played organ, banjo, guitar, first one was the fiddle.”
As community-based scholars, we were especially interested in reactions to our book among residents of Knox County. Here, Dan Emmett is a hero, and official discourse about him is untouched by the broader society’s generally negative view of minstrel music and minstrelsy itself. Emmett’s birthplace is preserved as a historic landmark, and buildings from the local grange to the new convention center bear his name. Despite, or more likely because of, occasional moments of public interest in the Snowdens’ connection to Emmett and “Dixie,” the local power structure has steadfastly elevated Emmett as a creative artist who contributed some of America’s most memorable songs. We therefore approached the publication of our book with trepidation, fearing at times that we might be run out of town—figuratively—in any case, anxious about personal reprisals.
Unsurprisingly, news about the national reception of our work made the front page of the local newspaper, and the initial response followed longstanding social divisions. Many older members of the white establishment rallied to discount our work, which suggests black influence on Emmett. A lay local historian, who proudly admitted to not having read the book, proclaimed that our challenge to Emmett was “just utter nonsense” and suggested that the Snowdens’ may not even be buried in the cemetery bearing their headstone. One official of the county historical society declared that “we’re trusting that Dan Emmett did indeed write ‘Dixie.’” For patently racist reasons, one Mount Vernon bookstore owner suspending offering our book—despite widespread demand—because it attracted unwanted black customers to her shop. The organizer of the Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival, the county seat’s annual summer celebration, took a moderate approach: while lamenting that the Snowdens’ contributions might be “the sad truth...the bottom line is that it’s still a Mount Vernon person--we still have a good claim to history.” For the past ten years, other incidents have pitted members of the community on one “side” or the other regarding the Snowdens and our investigation of their lives and music.
The occasional hostility we encounter even today stems from our having challenged the dominant community narrative. In fact, we had boldly inserted ourselves in the midst of two compelling but dramatically different narratives. In addition, we had poked into the extremely sensitive issue of how one rural community conducted its race relations in the historical past. But as with other parts of the Snowden story, it is irony, again, that stands out in the spirited rejection of black influence on the revered local minstrel, Emmett. Undoubtedly, among the most vocal proponents of the black origins of minstrelsy surely were the early blackface entertainers themselves.
In stark contrast to the local white population’s irritation, the county’s small African American community welcomed the book as a celebration and documentation of their heritage. One black woman in her twenties announced to us that she looked forward to confronting a former schoolteacher with the book. Many years before, the teacher had dismissed her from school when she had raised the Snowden story during a lesson devoted to Dan Emmett. Perhaps the most touching account involved an elderly black woman, possessing only a fourth-grade education, who was determined to read every word in the book, aided by a dictionary at her side.
1. Trivial Pursuit, Genus III edition (1994).
2. “Did Blacks Write ‘Dixie’ Song? New Book Stirs Up Old Issues,” (Omaha) Sunday World-Herald, Nov. 7, 1993.
3. “A New Chorus in the Debate over ‘Dixie,’ ” Dallas Morning News, Oct. 19, 1993.
4. “Revisionists Ambush the Minutemen,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oct. 20, 1993.
5. “Did Blacks Write ‘Dixie’ Song?”
6. Personal conversation with authors, Nov. 3, 1993.
7. “US White Supremacist Tune Was Penned by Black Family,” South African Sunday Times, Nov. 7, 1993.
8. “Way Down Where in Dixie?,” Milwaukee Journal, Oct. 20, 1993.
9. Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks, “Way Up North in Dixie,” Charles County Community College, Mar. 31, 1995.
11. Cheryl Sherrill to authors, Pittsburgh, Mar. 17, 1994; “’Dixie’ Written by Blacks, Scholars Suggest in Book,” Jet 84, No. 1 (Nov. 1, 1993), pp. 10-12.
10. Scott Jarrett, “New Book on ‘Dixie’ Already Making an Impact,” Mount Vernon News, Oct. 15, 1993.