- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Daniel Emmett, the composer of "Dixie," was born in Ohio in 1815, but his spirit was usually somewhere else.
The offspring of Irish parents, Emmett had little formal schooling but always liked music. After a stint in a newspaper office, he enlisted in the peacetime Army as a musician. There he composed "Old Dan Tucker," a song that found its way into many songbooks.
After five years in the Army, most of it at posts along the Mississippi, Emmett was ready for a change. He left the service in 1835, hoping to earn a livelihood from music.
A fledgling art form in America at the time was the "minstrel show," which combined the working-class humor of the English music hall with pseudo-Negro music. Performing in blackface, minstrel shows traveled from one town to another as America's canals and railroads made road shows possible. Minstrel shows were almost the only outlet for pre-Civil War songwriters, who included among their number the talented Stephen Foster.
In the winter of 1842-43, Emmett organized a troupe that he called the "Virginia Minstrels." Dressed in white trousers, striped shirts and swallowtail coats, they made a uniquely American sound, with violins, banjos, tambourines and "bones". The Virginia Minstrels opened at New York City's Bowery Theater in 1843 and, in the words of one critic, "firmly fixed themselves" among the best minstrel groups. Alas, a tour of Britain proved less successful.
At home, however, blackface continued to be popular, and a group that became famed as the Christy Minstrels gained a national reputation. In 1857, Emmett joined a rival group, the Bryant Minstrels, for which he composed a number of songs without coming up with anything resembling a hit.Then, in 1859, Emmett was told to write something on short notice. "One Saturday night," he later recalled, "as I was leaving Bryant's theater, [the director] called after me, 'I want a walk-around for Monday, Dan.'" Emmett said he would come up with something.
It was a rainy weekend, and the composer was not inspired. "I wish I was in Dixie," he remarked to his wife. "Suddenly," Emmett recalled, "I jumped up and sat down at the table to work." In less than an hour he had the first verse and chorus. "After that it was easy," he recalled. "When my wife returned I sang it to her. 'It's about finished now, except the name. What shall I call it?' 'Why call it, I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land,' she said. And so it was."
The new number had its debut at Mechanics Hall in New York on April 4, 1859, and was an immediate success. Emmett's official publisher was Firth, Pond and Co., but there were many pirated versions. Its appeal lay in its spirited tune and first-verse nostalgia; few bothered with such verses as "Now here's a health to the next old Missis,/An' all de gals dat want to kiss us;/Look away!" etc.
Emmett did not coin the term "Dixie." Although its origins are obscure, it had emerged as shorthand for the South well before 1859. One school suggests that the word memorialized a prominent Carolina family named Dixie. A more plausible theory links the term to $10 bills then in circulation in Louisiana, bills that had the French "dix" on their face. The fact that Emmett's long title spoke of "Dixie's Land" does nothing to resolve the confusion. Whatever the genesis of the word "Dixie," it was Emmett's song that imprinted it on the national consciousness. A New York City journal called the song "one of the most popular compositions ever produced. [It] has been sung, whistled and played in every quarter of the globe."
In March 1861, a rendition of "Dixie" in New Orleans proved so popular that the troupe had to perform seven encores. When Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy, there was no official anthem, so the band played "Dixie." A foreign observer wrote, "It is marvelous with what wild-fire rapidity this tune 'Dixie' has spread over the whole South. It now bids fair to become the musical symbol of a new nationality."
In February 1862, the Confederate cruiser Sumter found itself in Gibraltar harbor with a federal cruiser, the Kearsarge. There could be no hostilities in a neutral port, but when the band on the federal vessel played a loud rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," the Confederates responded with "Dixie." When Gen. George E. Pickett had made his final preparations for the charge at Gettysburg, he ordered the band to play "Dixie."
What did Emmett think of all this? He lived out the war in the North, doubtless annoyed at the pirated versions of his song being hawked throughout the South. Far from supporting the Confederacy, Emmett produced other songs during the war, including a patriotic number, "The Road to Richmond."
In the final days of the war, "Dixie" gained its most famous fan. Acknowledging the cheers of a crowd outside the White House, President Lincoln asked the band to play "Dixie," which he called "one of the best tunes I have ever heard." Lincoln joked that he had a legal opinion from the attorney general that the song was "a lawful prize," since the North had "fairly captured it."
Lincoln's lighthearted remark notwithstanding, "Dixie" was not taken to heart in the North. In the states of the former Confederacy, however, it was as popular as ever, cheerfully evoking an aura of the Lost Cause. Emmett passed most of his remaining years in Chicago, disdaining his own advice "to live and die in Dixie." He made several tours of the South, however, and was warmly received. He lived until 1904 but never wrote another song to match "Dixie."

John M. Taylor has written biographies of several Civil War figures, including "Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics." He lives in McLean.

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