Dan Emmett - The Man Who Wrote Dixie
by Wayne Erbsen
People don't whistle "Dixie" much anymore. Even marching bands have found other tunes to play. But there was a
time when there wasn't a self-respecting band south of the Mason-Dixon Line that couldn't turn out a dazzling
rendition of "I Wish I Was In Dixie," or just "Dixie."
Many of us have forgotten that the tune was composed by Dan Emmett, and that he first played it on the 5-string
banjo while working with Bryant's Minstrels in 1859. A minstrel musician and performer all his life, Emmett had a
stack of compositions to his credit, including "Turkey In The Straw," and "Jordan Am A Hard Road To Travel I
Believe," and "Old Dan Tucker."
Mount Vernon, Ohio must seem an unlikely place to be the home of Dan Emmett. Born on October 29, 1815,
Emmett attended the proverbial one room school house, where he learned "writing, reading, and ciphering". One of
the popular pastimes among children of the day was making up verses to popular tunes. This, apparently, was how
it all started.
At the age of eighteen, Emmett lied his way into the army by claiming to be twenty-one years old, the minimum age
at that time. Army life afforded Emmett the opportunity to develop his music. Studying drum under the renowned
John J. Clark, Emmett soon "became the master of . . . .every `side beat' then in use, from Revele at six in the
morning to Tatoo at nine o'clock in the evening". He even had a drum roll used to `drum disorderly women out of
camp". While in the service, Emmett also learned the fife and became the leading fifer under the tutelage of Sandie
McGregor. But Emmett's promising career as an army fifer and drummer came to an unceremonious halt in 1835
when, much to Emmett's chagrin, it was discovered that he was under age. Discharged from the army, Emmett
fulfilled the dreams of many a youth and joined the circus. Playing in the circus orchestra, young Emmett began
composing "Negro" songs and tunes. The first such song was entitled Bill Crowder and wasn't exactly what you
would call a hit.
But Dan Emmett was expanding his musical skills, and soon became fascinated with the banjo. It was in the spring of
1840, so the story goes, that Emmett was first exposed to the banjo. He had joined the Cincinnati Circus Company,
which was touring throughout Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Kentucky. While traveling through western Virginia, he met
a banjo player named "Ferguson". Emmett was so impressed that he tried unsuccessfully to get him hired on the
train. Just as the circus wagons were pulling out of the town, Emmett reportedly ran up shouting: "Ferguson will work
on canvas, and play the banjo for ten dollars a month". Ferguson was told to hop on the wagon, and so began
Emmett's apprenticeship on the banjo. By the summer of 1841, Emmett himself was playing banjo to circus
audiences along with Frank Brower, who was reported to be the first to play bones in public. By November of 1841,
Emmett's name started to appear on circus posters, along with the drawings of elephants and clowns.
Trying to expand his career beyond the circus tent circuit, Dan Emmett moved to New York in November of 1842.
There he joined with Frank Brower and a young dancer named Pierce. They ran ads in the New York newspapers,
calling Emmett "The Great Southern Banjo Melodist", Bower "The Perfect Representative of the Southern Negro
Characters", and dancer Pierce as "The Great Heelologist". Emmett was soon calling himself "The Renowned
Before long, Emmett and Brower teamed up with two other blackface performers, Dick Pelham and Bill Whitlock, both
seasoned professionals. Pelham was known as a dancer, and Whitlock was a banjoist who had taken lessons from
Joel W. Sweeney, "The Virginia Paganini", who claimed to have invented the fifth string on the banjo. Although each
swore that he had personally "invented" the idea of a minstrel band, most probably it all happened by accident. The
story is told that Whitlock had invited Dan Emmett over to his boarding house on Catherine Street, in New York.
They were playing banjo and fiddle when in came Frank Brower, who joined them on bones. Then Dick Pelham
dropped over and he started playing the tambourine. George Wooldridge, who happened to be at the scene,
declared that "such a rattling . . . of .instruments in a minstrel band was never heard before".
After trying their luck on a few more tunes, the excited minstrels made the rounds to the "Branch" in the Bowery, and
"Barlett's Billiard-Room", where they met with overwhelming, if intoxicated response. These were the first
performances of a minstrel band on record. The group was soon calling itself "The Virginia Minstrels".
The country must have been ready. How else could the Virginia Minstrels have so taken the country by storm? They
were in immediate and constant demand to perform everywhere, from the concert stage to the river boat, saloon,
and even overseas. Before long, a "minstrel craze" seemed to be sweeping the country, as other minstrel groups
jumped into the fray. Minstrel bands with names like The Christy Minstrels, The Congo Minstrels, The Ethiopian
Serenaders, The Southern Minstrels and The Virginia Vocalists were soon performing "authentic Ethiopian
melodies" and dances for the American public.
These bands usually consisted of from four to six members. There were no women minstrels. The most commonly
used instruments were the banjo, tambourine, and bones. More than likely, there was also a fiddle, assorted rattles
and possibly an accordion, second banjo, and a jawbone, which was struck, rattled, or scraped. We can only
imagine the ruckus these instruments produced when played together. From all reports, the sound was often
enough to wake the dead.
In 1859 Dan Emmett joined Bryant's Minstrels. Known as one of the hottest minstrel groups, the Minstrels were the
rage of New York. They performed at Mechanics Hall with a large and enthusiastic following from February 1857
until May of 1866. Emmett's considerable talents were used to full advantage by Bryant's Minstrels. He wrote tunes,
songs, comedy sketches, and walk-arounds, or song and dance routines. He also performed on banjo, fiddle, as
well as the fife and drum.
It was during his stint with Bryant's Minstrels that Emmett composed "Dixie." Although there were varied and often
conflicting versions of how the song was composed, we can probably rely on Emmett's own version of the song's
origin: "I always look upon the song as an accident. One Saturday night, Dan Bryant requested me to write a
walk-around for the following week. The time allotted me was unreasonably short but not withstanding, I went to my
hotel and tried to think out something suitable, but my thinking apparatus was dormant; rather than disappoint
Bryant, I searched through my trunk and resurrected the manuscript of "I Wish I Was In Dixie's Land," which I had
written years before. I changed the tune and rewrote the verses, and in all likelihood, if Dan Bryant had not made
that hurry-up request, 'Dixie' never would have been brought out."
On the evening of April 4, 1859, Bryant's Minstrels first performed the song Dixie's Land on the stage at Mechanic's
Hall. The song was an instant hit, and went on to become the most famous song produced in that era. In looking for
reasons for the song's phenomenal popularity (other than the fact it was a good song, we must remember that the
Civil War was fast approaching. The song touched the very heart of the Negro question. While Southerners and
Northerners argued over the Negro's place, the song affirmed that the Negro longed to be in "the land of cotton"
and that he was happy and content there, just like in the old days when "old times there are not forgotten". Besides
allowing Southerners to believe the Negro happy in slavery, the song afforded both sides in the conflict the chance
to laugh at the whole situation. As events leading up to the Civil War rapidly worsened, there was little enough
chance to laugh.
When the Civil War did break out, "Dixie" played no small part. At the inauguration of Confederate President
Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18, 1861, "Dixie" was triumphantly placed. And as Southern
soldiers marched into battle, they often marched as they sang "Dixie." Although the song was intended as harmless
entertainment, when soldiers sang, "In Dixie land I'll take my stand To live and die in Dixie," they doubtless meant
something more than what poor Dan Emmett had intended.
Although "Dixie" was the battle hymn of the Confederacy, it was also extremely popular in the North, as well,
although with different words. Both sides freely improvised texts to suit their own immediate situation. Here is an
example of a Southern verse to Dixie: Southerners, Hear your country call you/ Up! Lest worse than death begall
you! /To Arms! To Arms! To Arms! in Dixie!/Lo! All the beacon fires are lighted/Let all hearts be now united!/ To
Arms! To Arms! To Arms! in Dixie!
Because the song was being rewritten by so many hands, many of Emmett's contemporaries denied he wrote it,
although no serious claims were ever filed. Southerners liked to think of it as an old southern song, certainly not one
composed in New York City.
Although it is beyond doubt that Dan Emmett did compose "Dixie," like most song writers, he did rely on stock
phrases already in use. For example, "I wish I was in . . . appeared as early as the 1830's in the minstrel song Clare
De Kitchen. ("I wish I was back in old Kentucky . . . "). The phrase "Where I was born . . . " appeared in a minstrel
song entitled "Picayune Butler," in 1847.
The origin of the word "Dixie" itself seems to be lost. There are several interesting, though unreliable, tales of the
word. One English correspondent reported hearing the story that there was a planter named "Dixie" who died to the
grief of his faithful slaves. Missing their parted master, they longed for master "Dixie". An equally unlikely story is told
that the word originated in Louisiana. It seems that there existed in Louisiana ten dollar bills with the French imprint
"Dix", which supposedly were nicknamed "Dixies". As the story goes, the name was extended to cover all of
Louisiana, and eventually the entire south., Fascinating stories, yes, but neither appear to hold much water.
Despite the obscurity of the word "Dixie", the song has been one of the most popular compositions in American
history. Back during the Civil War, one writer noted that: " . . . Whenever 'Dixie' is produced, the pen drops from the
fingers of the plotting clerk, spectacles from the nose and paper from the hands of the merchant, the needle from
the nimble digits of the maid or matron, and all hands go bobbing, bobbing in time with the magical music of 'Dixie.'"
When the Civil War was over, it was none other than President Abraham Lincoln that announced that the Union
armies had won back "Dixie." His words were: " . . . I thought 'Dixie' was one of the best tunes I ever heard . . . I have
heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly
captured it . . . I presented the question to the Attorney General and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize. I
asked the band to give us a good turn upon it."
In later years, when there was grumbling over America as our National Anthem, it is reported that Teddy Roosevelt
suggested "Dixie" as a substitute.
Today, "Dixie" is making a slow and gradual comeback. Bands are again venturing to play it. Perhaps, when all the
wounds and scars of the Civil War and the movement for equality have fully healed, "Dixie" will again be as popular
as in the days when Dan Emmett so harmlessly composed it.