Daniel Decatur Emmett, a pioneering figure in the history of minstrelsy and the author of “Dixie,” was born two hundred years ago this week. Minstrelsy was America’s first original genre of popular music. Performed in blackface, it mimicked and mocked the speech patterns and supposed mental inferiority of African Americans. “Dixie” was one of the genre’s biggest hits and became the de facto national anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ironically, although Emmett made such a large imprint on American culture, he remains relatively obscure even among those interested in the history of music. Indeed, those who do know of his association with “Dixie” often challenge his authorship, which has been disputed ever since the song’s publication. Even without “Dixie,” however, Emmett was an enormously influential figure and his career frequently intersected with important moments in the history of his time and the development of his art form.
Emmett grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and took to music in his youth, playing the fife as a teenaged field musician during the Black Hawk War of 1832. He began performing his first hit, “Old Dan Tucker,” sometime in the early 1840s and published it in 1843, at which point it became the signature number of his touring troupe, the Virginia Minstrels. Formed around the same time as the publication of “Old Dan Tucker,” the Virginia Minstrels were seminal to the development of minstrelsy, taking the blackface concept created by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in the 1830s and building a group performance around it. This act evolved into the “minstrel show” and became a staple of American popular culture well into the twentieth century. Other troupes such as Christy’s Minstrels, would later surpass Emmett’s in popularity, and other songwriters, most notably Stephen Foster, would make more money from minstrelsy. But Emmett remained involved in the genre throughout the antebellum period.
By 1859, Emmett had retired from performing but found work writing for a New York troupe known as Bryant’s Minstrels. It was in this capacity that he wrote “Dixie.” As Emmett later recalled, Bryant needed a number for a “walk-around” – the big closing number of a minstrel show – and he needed it quickly. Looking out the window of his apartment and into a cold March drizzle, Emmett settled on the theme of wishing to be in the sunny South. Though the tune of “Dixie” is undeniably catchy, the lyrics are a nonsensical potpourri of minstrel clichés that mostly follow the standard minstrel trope, best exemplified by Foster’s “Oh Susanna,” of an enslaved man who has left the South but yearns to return. Nevertheless, Emmett and others recalled that the song made an immediate sensation in New York and quickly spread across the North. Minstrelsy was not nearly as popular in the South, but the song did reach the New Orleans theater scene in 1860. The timing could not have been more apt. “Dixie” arrived in Dixie just as the secession movement broke out, making it a logical choice to become the de facto anthem of the Confederacy.
It is unclear how Emmett felt about his song’s newfound political role. He reportedly told a friend he would “be damned if I’d have written it!” had he known it would be used in such a way, but his subsequent wartime songwriting suggests otherwise. At best, his songs reflect a standard Democratic suspicion of the Union war effort. One such tune, “The Black Brigade,” was among a host of wartime minstrel tunes that mocked the idea of arming African Americans in light of their supposed intellectual inferiority. At their worst, Emmett’s wartime songs were pro-slavery. Emmett’s 1861 sequel to “Dixie,” for example, entitled “I’m Going Home to Dixie,” makes explicit the pro-southern and pro-slavery message that the original mostly implied. In the sequel, a black speaker – possibly the same as the one from the original song – remarks that he is trying to return to the South because “freedom to me will never pay” and “in Dixie Land the fields do bloom / And color’d men have welcome room.” He ends with the declaration that he loves “old Dixie right or wrong.”
“I’m Going Home to Dixie” did not make nearly the splash that “Dixie” did, and its failure probably persuaded Emmett not to write anything else so clearly pro-Confederate. Instead, he spent the rest of the war leaning toward the Democrats but supporting the war effort, even using his experience as a fifer to co-write a drummer and fifer’s guide for Union soldiers. By the time the war ended, Emmett’s closest professional competitors were dead, as Foster split his head open on a bedpan after passing out drunk and Christy threw himself out of a window amidst an episode of paranoid delusions. Emmett himself survived but his career faded as his voice left him and as minstrelsy’s popularity temporarily declined during Reconstruction.
But Emmett’s career underwent a remarkable resurgence before it finally ended. Having run out of money and returned to Ohio, Emmett found himself revered as one of the South’s great heroes when the Lost Cause reached its zenith near the end of the nineteenth century. In 1895, the eighty-year-old Emmett toured the old Confederacy, where large crowds everywhere hailed the author of their failed nation’s most prominent patriotic tune. Emmett was likely a little bewildered, if honored, but he was willing to appear on stage and dance his old minstrel jigs while someone with a healthier voice sang “Dixie.” Confederate veterans rallied around Emmett three years later when he lost his pension from the New York Actor’s Fund, and updates about the old man appeared regularly in Confederate Veteran magazine. When Emmett finally died in 1904, the national press noted his passing with glowing praise for his career and especially for his most famous song. Emmett, an Ohioan who had probably never set foot in the South before the Civil War, died a symbol of Confederate nationalism.
In a way, Daniel Decatur Emmett’s life was not unlike minstrelsy itself: highly influential but also regrettable and largely forgotten. Even those who still revere the Confederacy have little use for him in light of his northern ancestry, and the rest of us are repelled by the racism of the songs he wrote and inspired. But men like Emmett, once giants in American popular culture, left an indelible imprint on the nation’s cultural, social, and political history.