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That’s How They Do It In Dixie posted on July 14th, 2008

As a style of music, Dixie is a form of jazz that developed in New Orleans in the early 20th century and spread to Chicago and New York City in the 1910’s. The style featured brass bands marches, ragtime, blues, and polyphonic improvisation of horns over a rhythm section featuring piano, guitar, drums, banjo, bass or tuba. With one instrument, typically a horn, playing variations on a melody, a ‘front line’ of other instruments would improvise around that melody. Standards from the Dixieland collection include “Basin Street Blues” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the work of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars.

However, Dixie is also a cultural region of the southern U.S, typically including the eleven southern states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy in the time of the Civil War (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee). This area, in the minds of those living there, is the traditional “Old South.”

The unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War was known as “Dixie” or “Dixie’s Land” and was written in 1859 by composer Daniel D. Emmett, who was actually from the North. Though this was the first official use of the name Dixie, the origin of the word is found elsewhere. There are, in fact, three popular theories:

1. The term refers to currency that was privately issued from banks in Louisiana. The ten dollar notes were labeled “Dix” from the French word for ten, and known as Dixie’s by the English speaking residents in and around New Orleans. The Cajun-speaking parts of Louisiana came to be known as “Dixieland” with the term later encompassing the entire South.

2. The word might also refer to Mr. Dixy, a perhaps mythical slave owner on Manhattan Island, where slavery was legal until 1827. As Dixy was so kind to his slaves, they longed to go back to “Dixy’s Land” upon being freed. This term, reflected in Emmett’s tune “Dixie’s Land” came to refer to a mythic place of happiness and material wealth. Whether or not Emmett brought the term to the south with his ballad or if it was already established is a matter of debate.

3.Some others believe that the term came from the Mason-Dixon line, a territorial boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania that divided the United States into the northern and southern states. Though it was established in the 1760’s, it became the demarcation between free states and slave states in 1820.

Whether you live in the south or have simply passed through, and whether you collect Dixieland Jazz or simply can hum a few bars of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” you’ve been exposed to this historically rich cultural bouquet. Whichever of the above theories is correct, we find it interesting to reflect on the history of the term. Which do you think holds the most weight?