A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem

By Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks

Smithsonian Institution Press. 259 pp. $24.95

More than 130 years after it was written the Confederate anthem "Dixie" still has a powerful hold on the American psyche, conjuring images of a mythical South, complete with happy, contented slaves. Black students at southern schools have protested when it was played at football games. Southern black legislators have walked out of the statehouse when it was played. But what if a black family were responsible for the song?

Authors Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks have begun with an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, though, one finishes this book disappointed. Despite all their historical detective work, in the end the Sackses deal primarily in speculation and establish only tantalizing possibilities.

Authorship of "Dixie" is credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, a white "pioneer of American blackface minstrelsy," who died in 1904. A marker on his grave in Mount Vernon, Ohio, testifies that his "song 'Dixie Land' inspired the courage and devotion of the Southern people and now thrills the hearts of a united nation." Nearby, however, in a small black cemetery, lie the graves of two brothers, Ben and Lew Snowden.

The marker on their grave, erected in 1976, reads, "They taught 'Dixie' to Dan Emmett." Though few outside Mount Vernon may have heard of the Snowdens, their contribution to "Dixie," the Sackses note, is the "understanding of four generations of local African Americans."

Emmett told various versions of writing "Dixie's Land." In one, he said he had only a weekend to write a new song for the minstrel troupe. In one burst, Emmett said, he "jumped up and sat down at the table to work. In less than an hour I had the first verse and chorus. After that it was easy."

The Sackses begin their version of "Dixie's" origins much earlier than the song's first performance in 1859. In 1827 10-year-old Ellen Cooper was brought to Knox County, Ohio. Born a slave in Charles County, Md., she was manumitted by her master, perhaps because she might have been his daughter, so that she could accompany his sister to Ohio. There, in 1834, she married Thomas Snowden. The couple had nine children, seven of whom survived.

In debt following Thomas's death, Ellen Snowden and her children formed the Snowden Family Band, and traveled as far as 75 miles from their Mount Vernon home to play concerts. They had their own handbills and were well known enough to list their occupations as "Snowden Band" in the 1860 census.

All this is well and good and the Sackses have done a remarkable job of documenting the Snowden family. The Snowdens' sheet music has been preserved, as have Lew Snowden's banjo, a family photograph album and "a scrapbook of the Snowden girls, composed of poetry and recipes, feminist tracts, and news accounts of John Brown's hanging clipped from the popular press." There are also 64 letters, the first, dated 1836, from Ellen Cooper's acknowledged father, who remained in slavery in Maryland.

The Sackses' copious research also includes interviews with those who remembered the Snowdens (Lew died in 1923), and descendants of the white family that brought Ellen Cooper to Ohio, as well as examinations of minstrelsy, church singing in Ohio, slave life in Maryland, and the relationship between blacks and whites in rural Ohio in the Snowdens' time.

Unfortunately, despite the book's subtitle, it doesn't quite add up. The Snowdens were liked and admired by whites who heard them -- among the correspondence are requests by whites for words to songs they had heard the Snowdens play, as well as a letter from a would-be musician who wanted to "apprentice" himself to the Snowdens.

There are also, among the Snowden family papers, a picture of Dan Emmett and a 1908 newspaper article about Emmett's authorship of "Dixie." But while the Sackses establish that the Snowdens knew Emmett's family and that Emmett may have been in Mount Vernon when the Snowden family performed, their arguments are liberally sprinkled with qualifiers such as "perhaps," "likely" and "seems," and they fail to establish more than a circumstantial connection between the Snowdens and Emmett.

Worse, much of one chapter is devoted to a line-by-line analysis of "Dixie" based on the supposition that it was Ellen Cooper Snowden's composition. It is, to say the least, fanciful, and more useful as fiction than as history. It's a pity. There is much of value here in this rich portrait of the Snowdens and their lives. Even without a connection to "Dixie," it is still required reading for anyone interested in black music and its intersection with mainstream American culture.

David Nicholson's reviews appear each Tuesday in Style.