There are two widely held misconceptions about this song; before the advent of the Internet many people believed it was written by Stephen Foster, and it is still widely believed to have been composed as a straight "coon song" in the same fashion as "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?
" or the early Irving Berlin composition "Alexander And His Clarinet
In fact "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers!" was written by the black Northerner James Bland rather than by the white composer Foster, and although it is an original, it was written as a Minstrel-style parody of "Golden Slippers," a song performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first singing ensemble to popularize the African American spiritual internationally.
As with Charles Coborn's "Two Lovely Black Eyes", the parody soon surpassed the original. Along with "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny
" it is Bland's best known composition, and as with this State Anthem, it is arguably one of the finest of the genre ever written, behind only "The Lily Of Laguna
" by Englishman Leslie Stuart.
Bland wrote the song in 1879, at the peak of his creative powers; it was actually published prior to the original, and was performed widely by minstrels - both Georgia Minstrels (ie blacks) and white minstrels in blackface - and was also popular in Vaudeville, an artform in which Bland, sadly, was not.
The song tells the story of a man obsessed with what we would today call materialism: his long tailed coat, long white robe, his banjo (the love of Bland's life), but most important his golden slippers. He talks about riding off in his chariot, a metaphor for escaping slavery - which would not have been lost on the freeborn Bland. It remains to be seen if the narrator is simply leaving the plantation, going North to escape for good, or going to a better place (do angels wear golden slippers?).
The song has been widely recorded by black and white artists, and as an instrumental has been particularly popular with white artists, especially bluegrass and brass band performers.