You Ain’t Just Whistlin’


(proper noun)

“Dixie” is an imagined region, a geography laid out in the soundscape of the minstrel song with the same name.  It has been adopted to refer to the Southeastern United States, and is usually employed to identify a chronic space distinct from the present and contemporary political climate–this is as true for 1842 as it is for 1963 or 2011.

The term has a heated position as proper noun and song, as it is associated with a usage by racist white Southerners.  South Carolinian Strom Thurmond’s 1948 bid under the anti-integration  “Dixiecrat” party is perhaps the most vivid usage of the term to specify a union of antiquated politics with place in the 20th century.  By converse comparison, the colloquial phrase “you ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” actually inflates the term, meaning that some one is not saying something small, something actually very important.  I have a theory that the Southeastern grocery chain “Winn Dixie” makes use of the term to indulge in historical fantasies, subliminally reversing the outcome of the Civil War.  The more recent novel and release of the movie, “Because of Winn Dixie,” show that the term maintains a powerful position in fictions of America’s regionality.

Much like the etymologically redeemed “niggardly,” whose root is in Old Norse and Swedish—not Scotch Gaelic or English, the origin of “dixie” is contested and inflamed. Just as “niggardly” sounds as if it is connected to an etymology of racism (though its origin is divergent), so “Dixie’s” power derives from the aural activity of song; that its etymology is obscure, ramified and indistinct, only adds to the term’s mystification.  As with all issues of nationalistic fervor and zealousness, there appear to be camps or schools of thought attached to the differing theories of the term’s “origin.”  I hope that by synthesizing these origin theories, the word’s initial context will be re-introduced, allowing cultural evaluation.

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps not the best place to start stalking an American term, and indeed the OED points to Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951).  Mathews admits from that the onset, “many theories have been advanced in vain efforts to account satisfactorily to this term.”  He nevertheless lays out the 3 forerunners:

1. (the most ridiculous to me…) The word is the namesake of a kind [look forward to an upcoming post on “kind”] slave owner on Manhattan island, a Mr. Dixy.  He was such a ‘nice’ master that “Dixy’s Land” was greatly missed after his death. This origin story clearly romanticizes the most peculiar institution, although it plants that institution firmly in Yankee soil. There is also some obscurity in this etymological source in that some accounts separate Dixy’s slaves by either death or sale from he and Manhattan.  Either way, “Dixy’s Land” is actually closer to Madison Avenue than Peachtree St.

2. The Citizen’s Bank in antebellum Louisiana was the most stable of Southern banks, and issued currency in $10 bills, that were labeled with the French “dix.”  I find this origin convincing for New Orleans if not the whole of the South, since the white “Dixieland Jazz Band” started using the term after Storyville closed in 1920 and black musicians like Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong headed North to Chicago.

3. Dixie is derivative from Mason & Dixon’s survey line.

In citation, but not etymology, the OED mentions D.D. Emmett (1815-1904), a minstrel songwriter who wrote “Dixie” in 1859.  By that time, Emmett had been playing in New York City in blackface since 1842, advertising “authentic Ethiopian melodies,” and “Congo Minstrels,” and claimed to be the first musical act to play bones on an American stage.  “Dixie” premiered with this group, then going by the “Virginia Minstrels,” in pool halls and bars in Manhattan’s Bowery district.  The troupe travelled with circus performers, who alongside the bones must have provided spectacle and freakery to urban working class audiences.   This was the first time “Dixie” appeared in print.

Daniel Decatur Emmett was from Ohio, and his contemporary [name omitted from source] claims that Emmett did not originate the term, but it was used by the touring performers:  “…[Dixie] as not, as most people suppose, a Southern phrase, but first appeared among the circus people of the North…” to refer to a warmer climate and a romanticized milder times.

I found one other citation of “Dixie” prior to Emmett’s song, used as a male character name in minstrel shows from 1850.

The 30 December 1872 issue of New York Weekly claims that “Dixie” originated in New York City as part of a children’s game of tag. I found no other references to a children’s game, but its location in New York City’s streets follows the pattern. 

I cannot, to use Mathews’ term, “satisfactorily” define the etymology of “Dixie.”  My best guess is that the term started its wider cultural circulation in blackface minstrel shows in New York City in the 1850’s, who in turn, like so much else of minstrelsy, had appropriated the term from the circus performers with whom they toured.  I’m guessing that the freakshow geeks used the term to refer to the South as region and climate (being migratory), and the blackfaced performers had to modify the meaning of the term slightly in order to work it into their act.  Emmett was simply eavesdropping in the right place at the right time, wearing the right face.

The song “Dixie” has been played both at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration and requested by Abraham Lincoln after declaring Union victory.

Works Cited:

Simpson, J. A., E. S. C. Weiner, and Michael Proffitt. “Dixie.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford [England: Clarendon, 1993. Print.


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