Was in the land of cotton/'cimmon seed and sandy...

"I WISH I

October 18, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"I WISH I was in the land of cotton/'cimmon seed and sandy bottom/Look away! Look Away! Look Away! Dixie Land!"

'Cimmon seed and sandy bottom? Yep, that, not "old times dar am not forgotten," is the original second line to the South's

favorite song.

Howard and Judith Sacks say so. They're the authors of a new book, "Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem." They say that "Dixie" was not written by Daniel Decatur Emmett, the famous white minstrel, as the history books tell us, but by the mother of the Snowden family, free blacks living in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The Snowdens' seven children were popular entertainers on the local stage. Emmett heard them sing "Dixie" and appropriated (and slightly rewrote) it.

Thomas Snowden, the father, went to Ohio from Frederick County after being freed a couple of decades before the Civil War. The mother, Ellen Cooper Snowden, went there after being freed in Charles County.

The Sackses believe she is the author of "Dixie." Says Mr. Sacks: "Her life experience closely resembles the lyrics of the song."

So what's this 'cimmon seed stuff? "That puzzled me," Sacks says. "Until we went to the farm in Charles County where young Ellen Cooper was a slave. The dock she left from is on a sandy river bank. Nearby were persimmon trees. So the original song begins with a homesick woman remembering her childhood environment."

Emmett, who had formed a black-face minstrel show in the 1840s, heard the Snowdens sing "Dixie." When he used it in his show in New York in 1859, it became a great hit -- more popular in the South than the North, for obvious reasons, but popular nationwide.

When the South seceded from the Union, militants changed the song into a march and played it at Jefferson Davis' inauguration as president of the Confederacy. That was the first of many rewrites of the song for patriotic and propagandistic purposes. The best and most famous was that written by Albert Pike.

If it is ironic that "Dixie" was written by Southern blacks who moved north, so is it ironic that this militant version was written by a Yankee who moved south. Pike was born and raised in Massachusetts. He left in the 1830s and settled in Arkansas. He wrote poems and sketches, published a newspaper, became a lawyer, a judge and a Confederate general.

His version of "Dixie" was hawkish. In fact bloodthirsty. For example: "Fear no danger! Shun no labor! Lift up rifle, pike and saber!" To arms! to arms! to arms! in Dixie!"

The Civil War began and ended with "Dixie." First at Davis' inauguration in 1861, then at the White House in 1865 when a crowd gathered to cheer Abraham Lincoln after the South surrendered. Abe called on a band to "play 'Dixie' -- one of the best tunes I ever heard."

Thursday: Lincoln has risen from the dead. I'm not kidding. I read it in the newspaper.

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