MOUNT VERNON -- They hounded him. Spat at him in the streets. Sent letters threatening his life. All for writing a little walk-‘round.
And today some even try to take that away from him. Things haven’t been easy for Mount Vernon native Daniel Decatur Emmett, the author of “Dixie,” the song which to this day is seen by man as an anthem for the American South.
But then, things never were easy for America’s greatest minstrel.
Born in Mount Vernon in 1815 when it was a frontier town all of 7 years old, Dan Emmett never got much schooling. In those days, compulsory education consisted of the “three R’s” and little else. By age 12, Emmett was working as an apprentice to a printer in Norwalk.
Before long, he was back in Mount Vernon, working for a printer here.
It was at the town’s Fourth of July celebration in 1829, Emmett recalled years later, that he first went in front of an audience with a song. He took an old folk melody — one of thousands of Scottish-Irish-English tunes that everyone on the frontier shared — and wrote some whimsical new words to it in the boastful style that marked the inspirations of a strong, young nation.
He named the protagonist of the song “Dan” after himself, and gave him the surname “Tucker,” after the name of his hound dog. And that day, “Old Dan Tucker” was born.
Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man,
Washed his face in a frying pan,
Combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
Died with a toothache in his heel.
Get out the way, Old Dan Tucker
Get out the way, Old Dan Tucker
Get out the way, Old Dan Tucker,
You’re too late to get your supper.
Little did he know it then, but that song would one day travel across the country and become beloved by millions, even if it never made Emmett much money. What’s more is that it was only one among many “hits” the born entertainer was to write, if one properly keeps in perspective what composing music was in the 19th century.
But all of Daniel Decatur Emmett’s hits were to pale beside the monstrous success of a ditty he wrote to order one dreary February weekend in 1859. By this time, Emmett had progressed onward from Mount Vernon by running away with a circus, serving an underage stint as a drummer boy in the U.S. Army, and working as a newspaper reporter in New York City.
But music always called him back, until he was performing full time as a song and dance man.
The minstrel show: success and controversy
In the early 1840s, Emmett and some of his performing friends, Frank Brower, Dick Whitlock and Bill Pellham, came up with the idea of presenting a variety show where they would sing, play instruments and dance, interspersed with bits of comedy. None of which was particularly innovative.
What was innovative, however, was that Emmett and friends covered their faces in burnt cork to give themselves the facile, comical appearance of being African Americans. And they — The Virginia Minstrels — performed their songs and comedy routines in a very broad caricature of blacks.
To this day, the American minstrel show leaves a bad taste in the public’s mouth because of these gross caricatures. And, as the leader of the movement, Emmett has born the brunt of criticism. But let’s at least attempt to conceive of where Emmett was coming from before condemning him.
When Dan Emmett was born, American music did not yet exist. It’s a plain fact that nothing identified today as quintessentially American existed in pop music in the early 1800s or before.
What, instead, was in place were folk songs primarily from the British Isles, though a few French and German songs escaped the insularity of ethnic communities to become part of the general fabric of music heard throughout the young nation.
One can listen to a popular musical theater piece, such as Raynor Taylor’s The Ethiop, premiered in Philadelphia in 1798, and hear only a watered down, provincial version of what was popular in London at the time.
A sea change was to happen between 1800 and 1850, and Dan Emmett rode the wave. That change, the thing which made American music what it is, was the influx of African music, brought to North America by slaves and indentured servants, and then spread by free blacks, or “free persons of colour” as they were called.
Early white musicians were resistant to the rhythms and harmonies of African music. But many in the second generation of Americans were able to grow up hearing African music first hand, making it as natural as their European musical roots. Dan Emmett didn’t try to hide it, either.
In the autobiographical sketch he wrote toward the end of his life and included in H. Ogden Wintermute’s eponymous biography, Emmett told about his joyous discovery of African-American music in his childhood, from the Snowden family, a family of free blacks who lived in Clinton, a village just north of Mount Vernon, and now incoporated into the city as Clinton Road.
Emmett listened closely to the Snowdens and learned much from them. One of the particular traits that emerges in Emmett’s music is that the rhythmic swing, known as the Scottish snap, and is transfigured by the omission of a few notes on unexpected beats and off-beats. This breaking up of the steady skirl of Celtic melody into punchy fragments was the main jolt Emmett applied to British folk music.
In doing so, he was merely doing what the black performers such as the Snowdens, James A. Bland, and others were already doing. But this was what created the American vernacular in music. It was rhythm that made American music American, long before “blue notes” began to color the music harmonically.
Packaging a new kind of music
The vitality of this new music swept Emmett along. The burnt-cork routines were merely a marketing gimmick, a way of getting white people to sit down and listen to music with a strong African component. For some reason, the public is always more open to watching something controversial as long as it is billed as “entertainment,” as if labeling it so makes it any less serious, less real.
In Emmett's hands, minstrelsy was an excuse for taking on African-style voices and instrumental playing styles.
Was it racist? Sure it was. But it was also, in the manner of its age, a tribute, albeit a backhanded one at best.
Unfortunately, once Emmett and his friends created the minstrel show, it quickly grew beyond their control. Emmett later lamented that others soon turned minstrel shows into bawdy, crude shows, which is a bit disingenuous on his part, as one must wonder from our perspective today how a satirical presentation of another ethnic group ever had much hope for turning out as anything but a mockery.
But then again, Emmett also comes across as a genuine innocent. After a weekend of performances with the Virginia Minstrels in the spring of 1859, Emmett’s manager at Mechanics' Hall on Broadway told him that he should write a new “walk around,” a popular round dance form at the time, for the group to try out Monday morning for next week’s show.
Emmett said he’d do his best to oblige him.
That dreary Sunday Emmett spent hours wracking his brain, while chilling from the winter cold of New York City. It made him long for the south, where he had often performed on tour.
“I wish I was in Dixie,” he muttered to himself at one point as he ran through various tunes and fragments of tunes on his fiddle. The phrase stuck in his mind, and seemed to match one musical phrase quite well. Suddenly the spark caught fire, and within an hour, “Dixie” was done.
Or so Emmet told the story. Others have questioned it.
Professor Howard Sacks of Kenyon College in Gambier has written extensively on the question in the book Way Down South in Dixie, where he proposes that Emmett may have lifted the song, intact, from the Snowden family, based on comments passed down over the generations in the Snowden family.
Mount Vernon historian Lorle Porter blasted back in her book Burnt Cork Artist Extraordinaire: Daniel Decatur Emmett that Sacks was being conjectural and had no real proof to back up his charge that Emmett didn’t write “Dixie.”
What these arguments fail to grasp is the nature of popular musical composition in the mid-1800s. Modern copyright laws are absurd when applied to the free appropriation of music as has been practiced for most of its history.
Copyright infringement has become grossly overinclusive in its modern description. To steal an entire song, verbatim, is one thing, but to borrow a phrase?
One wag once pointed out to Johannes Brahms that the main theme of the last movement of his First Symphony borrowed a phrase from the famous “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth.
“Any fool can see that,” was Brahms’ gruff reply.
The fact is, any listener who delves into folk and popular music of a bygone era will discover that melodies and words did not exist as composed pieces, rather, every musician gathered a repertory of stock phrases, both musical and verbal, which could be combined.
In certain regions, a combination of phrases might become known under a particular name. Up the next major river valley, though, that name might apply to a different assemblage of phrases.
For those who doubt it, go try to identify one integral melody for the title “Billy in the Low Ground,” or “Pretty Polly.” Musicians were magpies, grabbing whatever shiny phrase might enhance the music of the moment.
To what degree “Dixie” sprang full from Emmett’s mind or was shaped from bits and fragments of music, words and phrases known to Emmett, will never be known precisely. But what is known is that Emmett was responsible for launching it into the mainstream, where it took root and within a couple of weeks had swept New York.
Soon other minstrels were performing the song and carrying it to other cities. The song caught the public’s imagination, its buoyant melody and images of a “land of cotton, ‘simmon seed and sandy bottom,” hitting at just the right moment to gel into an archetype of the South, just as the region was on the verge of breaking away from the rest of the country, leading to Civil War.
By the time the Confederate States of America was formed, a mere two years later, there was no question what its defining song was to be.
Still, it's popularity transcended sides. President Abraham Lincoln famously requested it when a band serenaded him in the White House as the Civil War was drawing to a close, "I have always thought 'Dixie' one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it," Lincoln said, according to the Lincoln Collection. "I now request the band to favor me with its performance." (April 10, 1865)
Yet Emmett’s spectacular success turned to a bitter infamy.
He was denounced as a traitor, as if he had penned the song just for the Confederacy. He wrote song after song supporting the Union cause, all forgotten today, for it was the one song that was to define the man, for better or worse.
For those years, it was certainly for the worse, as Emmett lost work and income because of his association with “Dixie.” In time, the war ended, and the controversy settled down, though it never was to disappear.
Emmett relocated to Chicago for a period of time, but after the 1871 fire and, soon after that, the loss of his wife Catherine, Emmett retired from the business, took what meager earnings he had left and returned to Mount Vernon.
A farewell tour
For one last splash, a Columbus promoter took Emmett back out on the road for a national tour in 1891. Criss-crossing the country by train, the tour built up momentum for the final public appearances by the elderly minstrel. He left most of the performing to others, but his appearance at the end of the show to sing “Dixie” in a croaking voice brought the house down.
In Richmond, Virginia, the ovation lasted nearly an hour. Finally, in 1894, Emmett performed the song one last time before a packed house at the Woodward Opera House in his hometown of Mount Vernon. Whatever pain “Dixie” had caused him, it also proved to be his claim to fame.
In the end, he made peace with his controversial creation.
Emmett died in 1901 and was buried in Mound View Cemetery, where his grave is honored every year during the town’s Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival.
Mount Vernon songwriter and playwright Mike Petee, who has written a warm, charming play about Emmett, With Pen In Hand, featuring lots of minstrel music, performed without offensive makeup and stereotypes, summed it up best in his song “If I’d Known,” which portrays Emmett in a moment to himself, reflecting upon his song.
If I’d known, I never would have wrote it,
If I’d seen the trouble it would bring,
If I’d dreamed the hatred it created,
I never would have wrote it
I never would have wrote it
I never would have wrote “Dixie.”