After working as a printer's devil and serving in the United States Army, Emmett joined a circus troupe in 1835. In association with Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower, he organized the Virginia Minstrels, which made their first stage appearance at the Chatham Theatre in New York City, probably on January 31, 1843.
Although blackface performance, in which white men painted their hands and faces black and impersonated caricatures of black men and women, was already an established performance mode at that time—Thomas D. Rice had created the character of Jim Crow nearly a decade earlier, and blackface had been widely popular ever since—Emmett's group are said to be the first to "black up" an entire band rather than one or two performers. The group's full-length blackface performance is generally considered to have performed the first true minstrel show: previous blackface acts were usually either an entr'acte for a play or one of many acts in a comic variety show.
Emmett retired to his hometown of Mount Vernon in 1878 where he died on June 28, 1904, aged 88 years.
He is also sometimes credited with the composition of "Turkey in the Straw, but the authorship of this song is still contested by music historians.
Dan Emmett is traditionally credited with writing the famous song "Dixie". The story that he related about its composition varied each time he told it, but the main points were that he composed the song in New York City while a member of Bryant's Minstrels. The song was first performed by Emmett and the Bryants at Mechanics' Hall in New York City on April 4, 1859. The song became a runaway hit, especially in the South, and the piece for which Emmett was most well known. Emmett himself reportedly told a fellow minstrel that "If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it. after the south began using his song as a rally, Emmett wrote the fife and drum manual for the Union Army.
Another writer named William Shakespeare Hays (1837-1907) (pen name: Will S. Hays), claimed to be its true author. Members of the Snowden Family of Knox County, Ohio, have also been named as writers of the song.