If Stephen Foster refined the so-called 19th century "Ethiopian" slave-derived song into a form of high art, then Daniel Decatur Emmett was the main representative of its low-brow, populist ethos. Emmett broke into show business by joining a circus in Cincinnati as a banjoist and fiddler in 1835. In New York in 1843, Emmett co-founded the vastly influential minstrel troupe the Virginia Minstrels, a huge success on the Eastern Seaboard, managing to tour to the British Isles in 1844. In Boston that year, Emmett published "Old Dan Emmit's Original Banjo Melodies," a collection of numbers that he partly composed and otherwise may have collected. The song "Bluetail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)" appeared for the first time in this publication, but it is uncertain as to whether Emmett himself composed this perennial.
Emmett worked in a number of troupes, publishing the hit "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel" in 1853 and opening the first minstrel hall in Chicago in 1855. In 1857, Emmett joined the New York-based Charles Bryant's Minstrels. Emmett's specialty was the "walk-around," a type of dance number reserved for the conclusion of most minstrel shows and involving the whole company. One such walk-around, premiered in New York on April 4, 1859, was Emmett's "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land" which, under its shortened title of "Dixie," became known to every American and served as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. This must have proved ironic to Emmett, whose wartime songs reveal him to have been a Northern sympathizer.
After the war, Emmett returned to Chicago, but the popularity of the prewar-type plantation song in which Emmett specialized understandably began to plummet, supplanted by sentimental parlor songs, European-styled dance steps, and ultimately, ragtime. Emmett lost his singing voice in the 1870s, forcing his retirement from the minstrel stage. From that point until his death at age 88 in 1904, Emmett mainly subsisted on charity and on a modest stipend set up for him through the Actor's Fund of America.
Despite its enormous popularity, Emmett never earned a nickel from the untold millions of sheet music copies of "Dixie" sold in his lifetime. Emmett was the author of about 100 pieces, and by 21st century standards, Emmett's lyrics are of the most objectionable kind, none managing to escape the bigoted milieu of the minstrel tradition. Nonetheless, Daniel Decatur Emmett was a major figure in pre-Civil War American popular music. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis, Rovi