In 1859 Dan Emmett joined Bryant’s Minstrels. Known as one of the hottest minstrel groups, the Minstrels were the rage of New York. They performed at Mechanics Hall with a large and enthusiastic following from February 1857 until May of 1866. Emmett’s considerable talents were used to full advantage by Bryant’s Minstrels. He wrote tunes, songs, comedy sketches, and walk-arounds, or song and dance routines. He also performed on banjo, fiddle, as well as the fife and drum.

It was during his stint with Bryant’s Minstrels that Emmett composed “Dixie.” Although there were varied and often conflicting versions of how the song was composed, we can probably rely on Emmett’s own version of the song’s origin: “I always look upon the song as an accident. One Saturday night, Dan Bryant requested me to write a walk-around for the following week. The time allotted me was unreasonably short but not withstanding, I went to my hotel and tried to think out something suitable, but my thinking apparatus was dormant; rather than disappoint Bryant, I searched through my trunk and resurrected the manuscript of “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land,” which I had written years before. I changed the tune and rewrote the verses, and in all likelihood, if Dan Bryant had not made that hurry-up request, ‘Dixie’ never would have been brought out.”

On the evening of April 4, 1859, Bryant’s Minstrels first performed the song Dixie’s Land on the stage at Mechanic’s Hall. The song was an instant hit, and went on to become the most famous song produced in that era. In looking for reasons for the song’s phenomenal popularity (other than the fact it was a good song, we must remember that the Civil War was fast approaching. The song touched the very heart of the Negro question.

While Southerners and Northerners argued over the Negro’s place, the song affirmed that the Negro longed to be in “the land of cotton” and that he was happy and content there, just like in the old days when “old times there are not forgotten”. Besides allowing Southerners to believe the Negro happy in slavery, the song afforded both sides in the conflict the chance to laugh at the whole situation. As events leading up to the Civil War rapidly worsened, there was little enough chance to laugh.

When the Civil War did break out, “Dixie” played no small part. At the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18, 1861, “Dixie” was triumphantly placed. And as Southern soldiers marched into battle, they often marched as they sang “Dixie.” Although the song was intended as harmless entertainment, when soldiers sang, “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand To live and die in Dixie,” they doubtless meant something more than what poor Dan Emmett had intended.