Crude, offensive, comedic, and simple; Minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century and Dan Emmett was at the center of it. His contributions include not only music, but lyrics, stump speeches, and plays. He was also an acclaimed singer, banjoist, fiddler, and comedian. One could call him a jack of all trades. Emmett is an important name to early popular music theatre as well as popular music of the time, not unlike Stephen Foster. Foster is from the same period as Emmett but Foster's name has remained more prominent in today's culture. He wrote his longstanding classic "Dixie," "De Boatman's Dance," and "Old Man Tucker," as well as many others.
Daniel Decatur Emmett was born on October 29, 1815, to his parents Abraham and Sarah Emmett in Mount Vernon, Ohio. His father, Abraham, who was somewhat of a folk hero could be best described in today's world as a man that fights for his beliefs and his country. He enlisted in the local battalion to fight in the War of 1812, never saw battle but later bemame captain of his unit.
Little is known about Dan's upbringing. His education was nothing extraordinary, in fact better described as the very basics. The schoolhouse he attended in Mount Vernon was only open three month of the year, in the winter. He later took up a trade as a printer and apprenticed at a newspaper in or near Mount Vernon. He left the village at eighteen and took with him the villages simplicity, directness, and their tough humor that he would use through his career and in his music.
After leaving the village he enlisted in the Army. As aforementioned, he was only eighteen and not eligible for enlistment but he lied and said he was twenty-one. Emmett began to practice the fife and eventually was the 'leading fifer' until he was discharged because of his age. At the time of his discharge, the Army records listed him as "a musician."
After his discharge he moonlighted as a musician in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was traveling with a circus at the time and it was here that he wrote his first song "Bill Crowder." It was written for Mr. Frank Whitaker, a Negro singer and equestrian, and marks the beginning of Emmett's interest in Negro minstrelsy. It was near this same time, in the circus, that Emmett met Frank Brower. Frank Brower was a singer, comedian and one of the first "bone players," and Emmett's partner for much of his professional life. It is at this time that Emmett begins to gain popularity and start playing larger venues such as New York and Boston. In less than a year he would join with Brower, Bill Whitlock and Dick Pelham to form The Virginia Minstrels, who would revolutionize American popular theatre. At its inception, they were described as "novel, grotesque, original, and surprisingly melodious Ethiopian band." This was the basic pioneering of minstrelsy in America and it was wildly successful. The four of them sitting in a semi-circle set up the Act. Emmett was in the center with his fiddle, Whitlock with his banjo, then on either side of them was Pelham on tambourine and Brower on the bones. They were dressed in striped shirts, white trousers, and blue calico coats, and of course in blackface.
"The Virginia Minstrels," with their original members did not last long and after an unprofitable trip to London they effectively broke up. Leaving Emmett to other musical endeavors. Emmett still called them "The Virginia Minstrels" to attempt to quickly regain their popularity before the European tour. They continued with numerous shows all through the 1850's.
In the early 50's Emmett became mostly a solo act. He wrote several minstrel plays: The Rappers, German Farmer or the BarberShop in an Uproar, and Hard Times. This billing as a solo performer was made more viable by the popularity of his songs and texts. This popularity led to him opening a minstrel house at 104 Randolph Street later called "Emmett's Burlesque Ethiopian Varieties" where he was proprietor, manager and occasional performer. The house did not last long even with apparent good business and eventually was closed.
Emmett joined Bryant's Minstrels in 1858 and the first song that he wrote for the group was to become his most famous, Dixie. This is especially important because of the timing of it all. Dixie is the first song to use the term speaking of the South when the Negro protagonist states that the South is the only place where he feels happy. He declares himself totally content with his social status. This is of course not the truth, but what many Americans wanted to believe in the time shortly before the Civil War.
Bryant's Minstrels marked the end of Emmett's career. In 1888 he moved back to his birthplace in Mount Vernon and lived the rest of his life in a small cottage. He was very poor and even chopped firewood to make extra money. This was brought to the attention of the Actor's Fund of America who granted him a stipend of 5 dollars a week, which kept him happy and alive until the age of 88. In each of those 88 years he was always a forerunner from the inception to the development of minstrelsy and popular theatre in America.