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Daniel Decatur Emmett


     One of the most famous of Knox County's historical persons was Daniel Decatur Emmett. He is most often remembered as a musician-performer, but he was, in fact, an important writer. He was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on October 29, 1815. He was the son of Abraham and Sally (Zerrick) Emmett. Daniel's grandfather, John Emmett, had come to Ohio from Virginia to claim a land grant for his services in the Revolutionary War. John had been a farmer, trapper, and Methodist circuit rider. Daniel's father, Abraham, was a blacksmith.

   Daniel attended the Mount Vernon village log school until he was twelve years of age. He assisted his father in his blacksmith shop, and he spent much of his spare time reading. Dan was a lad busy with many things. In his teen years he worked in newspaper offices in Norwalk, Ohio and in Mount Vernon. Biographer Ogden Wintermute writes that Emmett "attributed his knowledge of grammar, spelling, and punctuation to his type-setting and newspaper experience." Early in life Daniel became interested in music, perhaps inspired by his mother's family. He became proficient in playing the fiddle, fife, and drum. His first public performance, at age 15, was at a traveling show appearing in Mount Vernon. Needing an extra performer, the musicians persuaded him to appear between acts, playing the fiddle and singing his own composition, "Old Dan Tucker." He was a great hit.

   The details of Dan Emmett's road to fame as a musician-entertainer are well told by his numerous biographers. His career began in earnest after his discharge, in 1835, from an underage stint in the army. His talents developed through engagements with circus bands, tent shows, and minstrel groups. While working in New York City, Emmett met Catherine Rives, and in 1853 they were married. Catherine was 13 years younger than Dan and, having a lively interest in music, she was able to join happily with him in his activities. In 1857 Dan joined the Bryant Minstrels in New York and continued with them until 1866.

   For the next twenty years Dan lived in Chicago where he worked as orchestra leader in theaters. In 1875 his wife Catherine died. Four years later he married Mary Louise Bird, a widow with two daughters. In 1888 he retired from theater life and returned to hometown Mount Vernon, Ohio, where he built a small cabin. His wife, Mary Louise, joined him for a short time, but she was discontented with the simple life and soon returned to Chicago.

   By 1892 Dan's funds were becoming exhausted. It was at this time that two other Knox County writers came into the picture. The Kester brothers, Vaughan and Paul, became aware of Emmett's circumstances. Paul Kester was active in New York theater and persuaded an Actor's Club to provide regular financial assistance to Dan for the rest of his life. After a final, seven-month tour with Al Field's lavish Minstrel Show during the 1895-1896 season, Dan returned to Mount Vernon. Here he did some extensive remodeling on his cabin, with new doors, paint, and a brick walk. Mary Louise came from Chicago for a visit and was impressed. She spent the remaining years of Dan's life with him. Dan Emmett died in 1904 and was buried in Mount Vernon's Mound View Cemetery. A band played "Dixie" at his burial.

   By any measure Daniel Decatur Emmett was a fascinating and important person. He was diverse in his talents. In this biographical note we are especially interested in his skill as a composer and as a creative writer. His theater performances were closely related to his composition in poetry and music. Emmett's biographer, Galbreath, says: "He was a prolific writer. His simple verse embraces almost every subject from 'Old Dan Tucker' to 'The Life of Lewis Wetzel'. He composed readily, sometimes improvising stanzas on stage." He also wrote several plays in metrical and prose forms, interspersed with music. Another extensive area of Dan's writing was his prose sermons and prayers.

   Emmett's creative activity was not without controversy. From the beginning of his varied compositions there were questions raised about the true authorship of his work. An Arkansas man who died in 1874 claimed to have written "Dixie," and there are some who think that at least ideas were suggested to Dan by his black Knox County friends, Ben and Lou Snowden. It has been pointed out by some of Emmett's biographers that the writers of minstrelsy frequently borrowed and adapted from the entire field of writing. Regardless of the speculations, it seems obvious to most of Dan Emmett's critics who study the abundance of his writings that he was truly a creative genius. Gilbert Schneider, in an article in Ohio History in 1976, reports that Emmett's original manuscripts in the Ohio Historical Society Museum occupy five linear feet of space.

   Emmett's compositions were published in many forms. The poetry with music scores became songs, published singly as sheet music or in collections. In addition to the songs he wrote plays and monologues, often, though not always, in dialect. These components were often combined in "walk-arounds." The walk-around was an ensemble production with instrumental tunes, songs, dances, and drama. Often these ensembles would include monologues, as parodies of preachers, politicians, or scholars. Most of these compositions were in Negro dialect, but there were also many in Irish, Jewish, German, and just plain "country." Some of his prayers and sermons were not in dialect.

   Some of Emmett's more familiar poetry (songs) are "Dixie's Land," "Old Dan Tucker," "Turkey in the Straw," "Old Zip Coon." "The Blue Tailed Fly." "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel," "Jimmie Crack Corn." "Auld Mrs. Madigan's Cat." "Root Hog or Die." and "Pat Rooney's Ball."

   His plays, monologues, sermons, and prayers were usually written as parts of his walk-arounds, and as such were often not titled separately. Some examples of walk-arounds are "Hard Times," "The Rappers," "German Farmers," or the "Barber Shop in an Uproar."



Elliott, Mary Quigley. Biographical Sketches of Knox County Writers. 1937. pp. 26-29

Galbreath, Charles Burleigh. Daniel Decatur Emmett. 1904. 66 pp.
    (Also in Ohio Archeological and Historical Publications, Vol.13, 1904, pp. 504-554.)

Iden, Raymond J. The Origin of Negro Minstrelsy and The Birth of Emmett's Dixie's Land. 1938.

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman, Oklahoma:
     University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose. Way Up North in Dixie. 1993. 259 pp.

Schneider, Gilbert D. "Daniel Emmett's Negro Sermons and Hymns: an Inventory,"
     Ohio History, v. 85: Winter, 1976, pp. 67-83.

Wintermute, H. Ogden. Daniel Decatur Emmett. 1955. 80 pp.

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