Ohio Memory Madness 2014: “Uncle Dan” and his Violin

Postcard of Daniel Emmett and his home in Mount Vernon, Ohio, via Ohio Memory.
Postcard of Daniel Emmett and his home in Mount Vernon, Ohio, via Ohio Memory.
Daniel Emmett's violin, competing in this year's Ohio Memory Madness, via Ohio Memory.
Daniel Emmett’s violin, competing in this year’s Ohio Memory Madness, via Ohio Memory.

 

Now that Ohio Memory Madness 2014 is well underway, we wanted to take a closer look at a few of the objects competing to be this year’s champion. One of the sixty-four fascinating objects selected to compete in this year’s competition is what looks to most people like a pretty standard violin. But this object, which comes from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society, actually belonged to Daniel Decatur Emmett, a native son of Mount Vernon, Ohio, and a composer of popular songs that many of us are still familiar with today.

It was given to Emmett by a pupil of his in New York who left for the Civil War, and was later embellished by Emmett himself with a decorative lion’s head in place of the volute, or the scrolled portion at the top of the neck. Emmett played this unique instrument during the era of the Civil War, providing a tune for some of his better-known works like “Old Dan Tucker” and “Turkey in the Straw.” In 1888, after decades spent as a traveling musician, Emmett returned to Mount Vernon, where he lived out the remaining years of his life. Known as “Uncle Dan,” he was something of a local character,  and could be seen around town in theatrically-styled clothing, occasionally performing his songs. A fellow resident of Mount Vernon bought the instrument from Emmett himself, and it was through this individual that OHS later acquired the object.

Music and lyrics for "(I Wish I Was in) Dixie's Land" by Daniel Emmett, courtesy of the Knox County Historical Society via Ohio Memory.
Music and lyrics for “(I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land” by Daniel Emmett, courtesy of the Knox County Historical Society via Ohio Memory.

Emmett’s most famous song is considered to be “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land,” better known as “Dixie.” This tune was written in 1859 as a closing song for a New York performance of the Bryant Minstrels, the traveling musical group of minstrel performers that Emmett was with at the time. The song immediately became popular across the country and was used as a marching tune by both Northern and Southern troops during the Civil War, although it eventually came to be considered the unofficial anthem of the South. The song’s lyrics caused many to accuse Emmett of Southern sympathies, despite his family’s long history of opposing slavery. And local legend in Knox County tells that Emmett actually learned the song from local African American musicians named Ben and Lew Snowden, adding a further wrinkle to the history of a song that today is recognized as the Confederate anthem.

Visit us next week to learn more about another one of the competing items in Ohio Memory Madness 2014. In the meantime, don’t forget to vote at https://ohiomemory.ohiohistory.org/madness/–voting for Round 1 ends tonight at 5 PM, and Round 2 starts tomorrow!


Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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