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Way Up North in Peninsula

The G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio, has been hosting a series of lectures related to the Civil War in recognition of the 150th anniversary of what southerners still call "the war of northern aggression."

With "Dixie" being the song of the Confederates during the war and the song's ties to Ohio, it was fitting that last night's lecture should focus on Howard and Judy Sacks' 2003 book Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem, published by the University of Illinois Press.

The Sackses are both affiliated with Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and residents of Mount Vernon, Ohio, the town where Daniel Decatur Emmett was born and is buried.

Emmett was a famous blackface minstrel of the mid-1800s and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame for such compositions as "Turkey in the Straw," "The Boatman's Dance," "Old Dan Tucker" and of course "Dixie." The latter song, however, may not have been his.

I first heard of the book at a concert by the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Kent Stage a couple of years ago. It was right around the time the band released its Grammy-winning album Genuine Negro Jig.

The title track, which they called "Snowden's Jig," was taken from a notebook of Emmett's. The theory is that the source of the tune was a notable black family from Mount Vernon, the Snowdens, who were a well known, traveling musical troupe.

Prior to playing the fiddle tune, Rhiannon Giddens told the story of the Snowdens, referencing the aforementioned book, which I read a few months later.

With the combination of having read the book and currently completing my own Civil War reading list, I was excited to attend the lecture, which was sponsored by the Peninsula Valley Historic & Education Foundation. (The same group also sponsored the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason concert I reported on last year.)

Howard Sacks began the lecture by asking if anyone knew what the most popular song is today. Nobody did. Then he asked if anyone knew what the most popular song was in 1962. Nobody got it. Finally, he asked what the most popular song was in 1859. Judging by the theme of the lecture, the answer was obvious.

"Dixie," he argued, may be the most popular song in American history, but it also carries along with it a lot baggage from its association with slavery.

Minstrel shows were the first popular culture movement that was wholly American, Sacks said. The minstrel shows capitalized on a wave of national nostalgia for the good old days, amid the growth of cities and the Industrial Revolution.

"Dixie" followed in the path of other so-called "Carry Me Backs" -- songs like Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" -- that referenced an idealized past. "Dixie" would become the most popular song if its day. Despite its association with the South, it is said to also be the favorite song of Abraham Lincoln.

While Emmett is credited with composing "Dixie," the Sackses learned of the Snowdens' association with the song. First, it was from someone calling into a local radio station during an annual festival in Mount Vernon. Then, a friend of theirs stumbled across a gravestone of Ben and Lew (aka Lou) Snowden. It read "They taught 'Dixie' to Dan Emmett."

The Sackses posit that "Dixie" was actually written by Ben and Lew's mother, Ellen Cooper Snowden, who grew up in slavery and moved to Ohio from Maryland. They say the song may be her reminiscing about her early childhood in the South.

While most people know the first verse of "Dixie" as: "I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten."

The original first verse as it was debuted was: "I wish I was in the land of cotton / 'Simmon seed and sandy bottom."

The second line refers to persimmon trees, which are prevalent in the south, but combined with "sandy bottom" the line could refer to Nanjemoy, Md., where Ellen was born and which the Sackses say is known for its persimmons and sandy lowlands. In fact, Howard said there is a street and a local school named "Sandy Bottom."

The story of the Snowdens is compelling, but of course there is no irrefutable evidence that Emmett did learn "Dixie" from the family. However, their proximity and reputation certainly makes it probable. If you go to Mount Vernon, like I did, and ask about the Snowdens, you're likely to get some resistance from the community about this issue.

Way Up North in Dixie is an academic book, but it's well worth the read. One interesting connection between the Snowdens and Peninsula is the fact that renowned banjo builder Doug Unger, who lives just down the street from the G.A.R. Hall and attended the lecture, restored the banjo that once belonged to Lew Snowden. Sadly, the Snowden collection, which includes a number of letters and musical artifacts, isn't on public display.

Image sources:
  • Book cover: University of Illinois Press website
  • Gravestone: Emily E. Vaughn website

Comments

  1. Great article. Maybe you meant to say "irrefutable" instead of "inscrutable."

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