In 1898, my great-grandfather Edwin Lewis Lybarger introduced his son Harry Swayne Lybarger to Daniel Emmett, the man who wrote “Dixie,” the song adopted by the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Edwin Lybarger was Grand Commander of Ohio for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) for its annual encampment, held that year in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where Emmett lived.
“He was a little old man with a cane,” my 10-year-old grandfather Harry wrote in his journal.
Forty years before that meeting, Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) was a vaudeville performer with Bryant’s Minstrels, a troupe of white musicians performing in blackface, an unfortunately acceptable performance style in the 1850’s. They performed Emmett’s song “Dixie” for the first time at Mechanics’ Hall in New York City on April 4, 1859.
To Emmett’s life-long dismay, the song became an indefatigable symbol of nostalgia for the defeated Confederacy and the Old South.
“Dixie” tells the story of a freed black slave pining for the plantation of his birth, the lyrics written in an exaggerated version of African American vernacular, intended for stereotypical comic effect. “If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put the song,” Emmett later said, “I will be damned if I’d ever written it.”
In the 1943 Paramount musical biopic titled Dixie, Emmett was portrayed by Bing Crosby.