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Photograph of Dan Emmett in his later years, taken from the belongings of Ben and Lew Snowden of Clinton, Knox County, Ohio.

Daniel Decatur "Dan" Emmett (October 29, 1815June 28, 1904) was an Americanmarker songwriter and entertainer, founder of the first troupe of the blackface minstrel tradition.

Of Irish ancestry, he was born at Mount Vernonmarker, Ohiomarker, then a frontier region.

After working as a printer's devil and serving in the United States Army, Emmett joined a circus troupe in 1835. In association with Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower, he organized the Virginia Minstrels, which made their first appearance before a paying audience at the Chatham Theatre in New York City in 1843.

Photograph of Dan Emmett in blackface, probably early 1860s.
Although blackface performance, in which white men painted their hands and faces black and impersonated caricatures of black men and women, was already an established performance mode at that time—Thomas D. Rice had created the character of Jim Crow nearly a decade earlier, and blackface had been widely popular ever since—Emmett's group are said to be the first to "black up" an entire band rather than one or two performers. The group's full-length blackface performance is generally considered to have performed the first true minstrel show: previous blackface acts were usually either an entr'acte for a play or one of many acts in a comic variety show.


Notable songs written by Dan Emmett include:

He is also sometimes credited with the composition of "Turkey in the Straw", but the authorship of this song is still contested by music historians.

Dan Emmett is traditionally credited with writing the famous song "Dixie". The story that he related about its composition varied each time he told it, but the main points were that he composed the song in New York City while a member of Bryant's Minstrels. The song was first performed by Emmett and the Bryants at Mechanics' Hall in New York City on April 4, 1859. The song became a runaway hit, especially in the South, and the piece for which Emmett was most well known. Emmett himself reportedly told a fellow minstrel that "If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it." After the South began using his song as a rally, Emmett wrote the fife and drum manual for the Union Army. Emmett's song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln, who said after the war ended in 1865: "I have always though that 'Dixie' was one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard our adversaries had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it."

Another writer named William Shakespeare Hays (1837-1907) (pen name: Will S. Hays), claimed to be its true author. Members of the Snowden Family of Knox County, Ohio, have also been named as writers of the song.

Death and posthumous recognition

Emmett retired to his hometown of Mount Vernon in 1878 where he died on June 28, 1904, aged 88 years. Emmett was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1943, Paramount Pictures released a film about his life entitled Dixie. It starred Bing Crosby as Emmett. Numerous schools, businesses, and other institutions in Mount Vernon, Ohio, are named after Emmett. The official memorial to him is a large boulder with a placard attached located in front of the Knox County Historical Museum.


  1. The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford University Press 1955 (Percy A. Scholes, ed.)
  2. Whitlock, who detailed the beginnings of the group, stated that the event was a benefit for Pelham. See Lawrence Hutton, "The Negro on the Stage," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, June 1889, p. 140. Such an event occurred on 31 January. See The New York Herald, 31 January 1843, p. 3. The following day the Herald reported that the troupe would be appearing at the Bowery Amphitheatre, and an advertisement in the 6 February issue refers to their first performance that evening.
  4. Dan Emmett,the Man Who Wrote Dixie at
  5. Letter from Col. T. Allston Brown to T. C. De Leon. Published in De Leon, Belles, Beaux, and Brains and quoted in Nathan 275.
  6. speech given on April 10, 1865 and quoted in Hall 10.
  7. Dan Emmett memorial re-dedicated | at

External links

See also


  • Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to America's Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Hall, Roger Lee. Lincoln and Liberty: Music from Abraham Lincoln's Era. Stoughton, Massachusetts: PineTree Press, 2009.
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2.
  • Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962

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