Daniel Decatur Emmett is remembered today chiefly for a song he wrote in 1859 . . . Dixie. He is also known for his role in the Virginia Minstrels.
Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on October 29, 1815, Emmett grew up in the rough frontier community, hearing church hymns, the fife and drums of the militia, and the jolly tunes of the fiddler. He taught himself to play the fiddle and began composing his own tunes at an early age. Dan first performed his song Old Dan Tucker at the age of fifteen during a Fourth of July celebration on the village green in Mount Vernon. At seventeen, he joined the United States Army, becoming the leading fifer at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. He was discharged on July 8, 1835, after the Army learned he had falsified his age in order to enlist. Afterwards he traveled with various circus bands, where he learned the technique of Negro impersonation.
In the winter of 1842-43, four stars of the minstrel profession formed a novel ensemble, consisting of the fiddle, bones, banjo, and tambourine. Calling themselves the "Original Virginia Minstrels," the four men, Dan Emmett on the fiddle, Frank Brower on the bones, Billy Whitlock on the banjo, and Dick Pelham on the tambourine, first performed in public at the Bowery Amphitheater on February 6, 1843, in New York. This unique ensemble, along with their song Old Dan Tucker, swept the entire minstrel world. Wearing ill-assorted garments, oddly shaped hats, and gaudy pants and shirts, the four Virginia Minstrels were an often rowdy, fun-loving group. Within a few short months scores of similar minstrel bands were performing throughout the country. The Original Virginia Minstrels had a short life. After a financially disastrous tour of the British Isles in 1844, the group disbanded. All of the minstrels eventually returned to the United States except Dick Pelham, who remained in England.
Emmett composed Dixie in the spring of 1859, while with Bryant's Minstrels in New York. The tune, written as a walkaround, became popular almost immediately and at the outbreak of the Civil War was popular in both the North and South. In the beginning of the war the troops of both armies marched to war to the tune of Dixie but by the end of 1861 Dixie had become identified as a Southern tune, much to the chagrin of Emmett who was anything but a Southern sympathizer.
In 1881 and 1882, now a man in his sixties, Emmett hit the road with Leavitt's Gigantean Minstrels, playing Dixie to standing ovations, for which he was paid $35.00 a week, board, and railroad fare. He was in Chicago in 1888. At the age of eighty, in 1895, he took his last tour with Al Field's troupe, principally in the South. Emmett retired to Mount Vernon until his death, June 28, 1904, where he is buried in Mound View Cemetery. There, his monument is surrounded by an iron fence. A stone and plaque is located on South Mulbury Street, where his birth place once stood, and a memorial tribute presented to the city of Mount Vernon by the Ohio Division of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1931 is located at the Knox County Historical Society on Harcourt Road. The Dan Emmett birthplace is an historic landmark and is now located off South Main Street near the Senior Citizens Center area next to the Kokosing River where it is open for tours during special events or by appointments with the Historical Society.
Dan Emmett was married to Catherine Rives in 1853 in New York. They had no children. She died in 1875. In 1879, he married Mary Louise Bird, a widow with two daughters.
Songs other than Dixie and Old Dan Tucker credited to Dan Emmett are: Turkey in the Straw, Old Zip Coon, The Blue Tail Fly, and High Daddy
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