Dan Emmett — The Man Who Wrote ‘Dixie’

Backpocket Old-Time Songbook by Wayne Erbsen

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 18, Emmett lied his way into the army by claiming to be 21 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 underage. 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 Ethiopian Minstrel.”

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 walkarounds, 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 are 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 $10 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 appears 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 who 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.

First published in the BANJO NEWSLETTER, February 1980

3 thoughts on “Dan Emmett — The Man Who Wrote ‘Dixie’

  1. Actually, there is strong doubt that Emmett wrote Dixie. Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks published, “Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem” in 1993, Smithsonian Institution Press. The two most important points made by the Sacks are that both Dan Emmett and the Snowden family, whom the Sacks claim that Emmett learned the song from, lived in Knox County, Ohio and that the plantation described in some detail in the song is the place in Maryland where the mother of the Snowden family was born. However, the subtitle is misleading since Dixie was popular with both sides in the Civil War, not only the Confederacy.

    1. I read that book, Steve, and was unconvinced. If Emmett didn’t write Dixie, who wrote “Blue Tailed Fly” and “Old Dan Tucker?”

  2. One more point: I have always assumed that Dixie derives from the Mason-Dixon line which forms the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Wikipedia lists that as one of three theories about the origin of the name.

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