The American poet and songwriter, more popularly known as Dan Emmett, is most famous for penning the famous, patriotic song Dixie although others have laid claim to its authorship. As a stage performer he made the already existing mode of entertainment known as “black face” even more popular when he advanced the concept from one or two performers blacking their hands and faces to the whole band doing so.
He was born Daniel Decatur Emmett on the 29th October 1815 into fairly modest circumstances. His father was a blacksmith of Irish descent and they lived in the, at the time, frontier region of Mount Vernon, Ohio. His mother had musical talent and Dan took after her. There was precious little in the way of formal education for the boy but he soon taught himself how to play the fiddle and had an early interest in writing poetry and song lyrics.
He was a boy soldier at the age of thirteen, enlisting into the United States Army and serving at Newport Barracks in Kentucky. He soon became proficient on the fife and drums and, later in life, he collaborated with George G Bruce in writing a Fifer’s and Drummer’s Guide, published in 1862. He was only in the army until 1835 and he then decided that his future lay in the entertainment business.
Emmett’s first attempt was with the Angevine circus in Cincinnati where he toured with them, and other circuses, singing and playing the banjo with his face blacked up. He was a popular performer and, eventually, he teamed up with Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Dick Pelham to form the Virginia Minstrels. Their first paid performance took place in New York’s Chatham Theatre in 1843.
Blackface singing was not a new phenomenon. Thomas D Rice had created a caricature of an African-American man called Jim Crow some ten years before. However, Emmett was the first to introduce the concept of a whole troupe of performers appearing in this manner and this genre of theatre became known as the “minstrel shows”.
They became popular in their own right, as opposed to being a minor act that might open a play or be one element of a comic variety show. While performing with the Bryant’s Minstrels show in New York City Emmet made his big breakthrough when he introduced the song Dixie. This first performance was at the Mechanics’ Hall on the 4th April 1859 and it became instantly popular, in particular across the southern states. Here are the opening verses, plus the first chorus:
Although Emmett was, in the first instance, proud of his work he soon changed his mind when the song was adopted as a Southern rallying call during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln himself loved the song, and yet the author reputedly said to one of his fellow minstrels:
Emmett spent a good part of his life performing on extensive tours, finding the time to write songs and poetry whenever he could. His legacy of songs earned him induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. A biographical, musical movie titled Dixie came out in 1943 starring the great Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby.
Daniel Decatur Emmett died on the 28th June 1904 at the age of 88.