The same tune ran through my mind again recently, as I reformatted the 226-page finding aid for the Ohio Historical Society’s Daniel Decatur Emmett Papers (MSS 355). The collection contains manuscripts of music composed by Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904).
Reading biographical essays about Emmett in American Songwriters, Popular American Composers, and the Dictionary of American Biography helped me learn more about this accomplished native of Mount Vernon, Ohio.
As a child of emigrants from Ireland, Emmett taught himself how to play the violin and soon began composing his own songs. After working in his father’s blacksmith shop, Emmett was apprenticed to a printer. When he was 13, he worked in the office of the Huron Reflector in Norwalk, Ohio, and later for the Western Aurora in Mount Vernon. In 1834, the 17-year-old Emmett enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a fife player for the 6th U.S. Infantry. When he was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, he took music lessons from the bandmaster and learned how to play the drum.
In 1835, Emmett left the army and joined a traveling circus. In the early 1840s, Emmett learned to play the banjo and started performing in blackface minstrel shows. As a founder of the Virginia Minstrels, Emmett was a pioneer of this type of entertainment. Scholars have suggested that the costume, monologues, comic parodies, word-plays, and dances associated with the minstrel show can be traced to Emmett.
While Emmett composed popular songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” and “Blue Tail Fly” (also known as “Jimmy Crack Corn”), he is best known for writing “Dixie.” Composed in 1859, the song was originally titled “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land” and became the anthem of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Emmett continued to travel the country in minstrel shows until he was 80. In 1888, he returned to Mount Vernon, where he raised chickens on a small farm until his death.
The Daniel Decatur Emmett Papers at the Ohio Historical Society also include hundreds of musical scores, minstrel show monologues written in dialect, theatrical scripts and music for various instruments.