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Home > Newspaper Articles > Dixie - Story of the Song by Daniel Emmet

 


Richmond Times-Dispatch            September 20, 1936


 

 

 

 

 

 

Dixie

Gloomy Sunday Morn Stirred Daniel Emmett to Write
His Immortal Lyrics, The War Song of the South

By John Francis Steele

 

Had it not been for a dreary spell of weather one of our most loved songs might never have been written. One Sunday morning nearly 78 years ago Daniel Decatur Emmett looked out of a gloomy lodging-house window in New York City and exclaimed, "I wish I was in Dixie," and affixed his name forever to the roll of American song writers.

But probably the most dramatic moment of his long and interesting life was at his last public appearance, which was in July, 1904. Many men of prominence were numbered among his friends, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that he consented to appear. When he arose to sing not a sound would come from his throat. The orchestra repeated and repeated, still the venerable singer stood almost overcome with emotion. Finally a young tenor took up the air and hummed along with the orchestra, then "Uncle Dan" picked it up and sang it through.

The author of Dixie was born October 29, 1815, in Mount Vernon, Ohio. His father was a native of Staunton, Va., and his grandfather, John Emmett, served as chaplain and surgeon in the Revolutionary War.

As a youth, young Emmett had a talent for music, was a splendid fifer and drummer and played the violin by ear in a Cincinnati orchestra. Along with his talent he possessed an unmistakable charm of manner.

It was in a boarding house on St. Catherine Street in March, 1843, that Emmett and his friends organized the first Negro minstrels. Frank Brower rattled the bones, Dick Pelham handled the tambourine, Billie Whitlock picked the banjo and Emmett led with the violin. The Branch Hotel on the Bowery--a rendezvous for show people, was chosen for the try-out. Their costumes, if nothing else, were original, as they were designed by Emmett himself. White trousers, striped calico skirts were topped by blue calico coats cut Uncle Sam style.

Daniel Decatur EmmettShades of the troubadours! The upstarts had violated all the canons of the stage. When Emmett began to tune his violin the crowd responded with jeers. Probably remembering the admonition of the ancient prophet, "to make sweet sounds that thou mayest be remembered," he continued, unheeding the insult. The minstrels had a mission to perform and not a hoot or cat call was allowed to distract their attention; and at the conclusion of the opening chorus the audience quieted down and began to listen.

Brower's and Whitlock's funny songs completely won the recalcitrant audience, which fairly howled with delight, but Emmett's song was the climax and he was recalled again and again.

They made such a hit that they immediately went on the stage and were known as the Virginia Minstrels. They played with great success in all the near-by cities, but when they tried to introduce this unusual piece of entertainment in London they went broke, as might be expected, and were glad to get back. This was the end of the first Negro minstrels.

In 1859 Mr. Emmett was a member of the Bryant Minstrels at 472 Broadway. His proficiency in rendering the Negro dialect made him a popular idol. Late on Saturday afternoon Jerry Bryant, the senior member of the troupe, asked him to compose a tune for the Monday night program to enliven their so-called "hoorays" or "walk-arounds." On Sunday he took his violin and hummed and sawed away. It was a cold and cheerless morning with the rain beating on the housetops. He had traveled much in the Sunny South, which he contrasted with the gloomy landscape--"I wish I was in Dixie!" he exclaimed, wishing himself far away from New York and the task at hand, little realizing this very gloom was to make him famous.

 


 

"Dixie" a Hit From the Start

 

Working up something with words that bore the semblance of a tune, he called his wife, who played the dual role of audience and "coach." The stanza that he had written did not appear in the song as originally printed, although the chorus remained unchanged:

"Dis work was made in jiss six days
An' finished up in various ways--
Look away, look away, look away. Dixie Lann--

Dey den made Dixie trim an' nice,
But Adam called it 'Paradise,'
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Lann!

 


 

A score or more verses have been added.

 

One can imagine the anxiety and eagerness of the entire troupe on Monday night, when the composer faced the audience with his new-born song. Their suspense was short, for it was a hit from the start. The tune ran riot and became the catch air for theatres and music halls throughout the North.

Although born and reared in the North, Mr. Emmett was sentimentally attached to the South. Always modest and entirely without egotism, he was almost overcome by the attention his unpretentious brainchild had attracted. The song was to the South what the Marseillaise was to France.

Adopting Dixie as a war song of the South followed a demonstration in New Orleans when "pocahontas" was being staged at the Varieties Theatre. Carlo Patii, brother of the famous Adelina, was conducting the orchestra and was having difficulty in finding suitable music for a Zouave march. When they finally tried out Dixie it was received with overwhelming enthusiasm.

On the big plantations the tune of Dixie could be heard in the cotton patch in the daytime and on the tinkling banjo when night came on. It was sung everywhere and adopted by Army and navy as the air that best suited the sentiments of the South.

 

 

'In the land of cotton,' a typical levee scene on anti-bellum days

 


 

 

Al G. Fields took "Uncle Dan" on Tour

 

Following the Civil War he retired from the stage and lived in a suburb of Chicago, where his new friends and neighbors affectionately called him "Uncle Dan," not knowing that he was the author of Dixie until Al G. Fields tracked him to his comfortable retreat, dragged him into the limelight and acclaimed him as the author of the famous song.

He would miss his long rambles in the woods and he regretted to leave his chickens in the care of others, but in spite of his eighty years he convinced Mr. Fields that he was quite able to make the tour as suggested by the showman.

The first appearance, which was at Newark, Ohio, was arranged to be quite easy for the elderly composer. Following a piece by the orchestra he was to make a short address, but Mr. Emmett did not see it that way, and to the amazement of the management he stepped out and sang Dixie very much as he had sung it 21 years before. They traveled and visited all the important cities of the South, and according to Mr. Fields, never did he witness more enthusiastic audiences. A great ovation was accorded him in Richmond, the heart of the Confederacy.

Mr. Emmett was a man of culture and dignity, and his stage life had given him ease and grace of manner. Besides Dixie, he was the author , "old Dan Tucker--using his own name, Dan, and that of his favorite dog, Tucker--and "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel."

The original manuscript of his famous song is in the library of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.

The name of Dixie as applied to the whole southland is thought by many to have come from the famous borderland between Maryland and Pennsylvania, Mason & Dixon's line. However, on Manhattan, a Mr. Dixie, who had once been a large slaveowner in the South, and his retinue of servants were most unhappy in the North and held out the "Sunny South" as a sort of Elysium to the colored race.

 

Facsimile of the old score 'Dixie'

 

 






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