Born of an October 29, songwriter and blackface minstrel** Dan Emmett (1815-1904). Emmett has been traditionally credited with being the author of the songs “Polly Wolly Doodle” (1843) and “Dixie” (1859), although there’s no paper trail per se, other than records of his performing the songs, and his testimony that he did so. As has been claimed, others may have written or co-written the tunes. Emmett is also credited with having devised the first minstrel show, although his was a prototypical, fledgling version, not the full-on, three part minstrel show form it eventually became.
Emmett, like many figures in minstrelsy, was from rural Ohio. He taught himself the fiddle as a boy, and acquired fife and drums skills during a stint in the U.S. army. He also sang and played the banjo. From 1835 through 1842 he toured with various circuses as a blackface performer (the popular craze for such characters had already begun with T.D. Rice, G.W. Dixon and others). In 1843, Emmett formed a quartet called the Virginia Minstrels with Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower, and they debuted at New York’s Chatham Theatre, near the Bowery. This is considered the birth of the minstrel show, although it would be some years until others, such as E.P. Christy, developed minstrelsy into its eventual form.
In 1858 Emmett joined Bryant’s Minstrels, and it was for that organization that he is said to have written “Dixie” the following year. He always disavowed its association with the Confederacy, a cause he repudiated. (Never try to make the history of racism simple. It is more than possible to have been against slavery, and against secession, but disrespectful to African Americans at the same time.) Emmett wrote over 50 songs between 1843 and 1869. He retired from performing in 1888. In 1943, a century after the Virginia Minstrels debuted, Emmett’s life was the subject of the biographical film Dixie, starring Bing Crosby.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous