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"Old Folks at Home" as sung by Christy's Minstrels in 1851.
1904 postcard


"Old Folks at Home", known also by the words of its first line, "(Way Down Upon the) Swanee River", is a song written in 1851 by composer Stephen Foster, to be performed by the New York performing troupe Christy's Minstrels. The name of E. P. Christy, the troupe's leader, appears on early printings of the music as the song's creator, as shown in the illustration: Christy had paid Foster to be credited, something Foster himself had suggested though later regretted. It has been the official state song of Florida since 1935.

According to legend, Foster had most of the lyrics but was trying to give a name to the river of the opening line and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was "the Yazoomarker" of Mississippimarker, which, despite fitting the melody perfectly, Foster rejected. The second suggestion was "the Pee Dee" of the Carolinas, to which Foster said, "Oh pshaw! I won't have that." His brother then consulted an atlas and called out "Suwanneemarker!". Foster wrote it immediately in (misspelling it "Swanee" to fit the melody), saying "That's it exactly!". Foster himself never saw the Suwanneemarker or even visited Florida, but the popularity of the song initiated tourism to Florida to see the river.

Controversy

This song is claimed by some as being racist toward black Americans for its imitation of Black English Vernacular (the song is sung from the perspective of a black man), with its original lyrics referring to "darkies" and "a-longin' for the old plantation." Foster himself supported the North during the American Civil War and sympathized with African-Americans. In 1997, former state representative Willy Logan presented an unsuccessful motion to have the song replaced. For many public performances, words like "lordy," "mama," "darling," "brothers" or "dear ones" are often used in place of "darkies."

As the official state song of Florida, it had become a tradition for the tune to be performed as part of the inauguration ceremony for incoming Florida governors. However, Charlie Crist decided not to include it in his 2007 inauguration ceremony. In its place, Crist decided upon "The Florida Song," a composition written by Charles Atkins, an African-American jazz musician born in Daytona Beachmarker and who now lives in Tallahasseemarker.

In May 2007, the Florida Music Educators Association began working in partnership with Senator Tony Hill and Representative Ed Homan to present an initiative in which all of Florida's citizens were invited to submit their entries for a new state song. From the press release: "The process officially begins Tuesday (May 15) for Florida's musicians to submit their entries for “Just Sing, Florida!”, the search for a new state song." The Florida Music Educators' Association (FMEA) created a new web site, http://justsingflorida.org/ , which contained rules and submission guidelines. On January 11, 2008, the song Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky) was selected as the winner and will be brought up before the state legislature as a possible replacement for "Old Folks At Home."

Most authorities trace the success of "Old Folks at Home" to the same qualities shared by most of Foster's other well-known compositions: a memorable melody.

Lyrics

Although this song may sometimes be performed with "modern" lyrics that some claim to be more sensitive racially, the song's original lyrics, included here, had been adopted officially as the lyrics of Florida's state song. In 2008, the Florida Legislature adopted a version of the lyrics that has been revised by the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.


1st verse
Way down upon de Swanee ribber (river)
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.


All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.


:Chorus
:All de world am sad and dreary,
:Ebry where I roam,
:Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,
:Far from de old folks at home.


2nd verse
All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.


When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.


:Chorus


3rd verse
One little hut amond de bushes,
One dat I love,
Still sadly to my mem'ry rushes,
No matter where I rove


When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home?


Popular culture

The song is mentioned in Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in the line, "If you want to hear the 'Swanee River' played in ragtime" and featured in 1936's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Gershwin's "Swanee" (1919) is a takeoff on the Foster song, and even contains the line, "I love the old folks at home." The song was recorded by boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons as "Swanee River Boogie" and by Ray Charles as "Swanee River Rock." Under the title "Swanee River," the song was recorded by Tony Sheridan in the early 1960s and is sometimes erroneously listed as an early recording by The Beatles due to their association with Sheridan at that time. The melody was used by The Beach Boys on their 1963 album Surfer Girl, for the song "South Bay Surfers", although there is no writing credit listed for anyone other than band members. The band also covered the song by connecting it with Old Man River; it can be found as a bonus song on their "Friends/20/20" double-LP.

Science fiction writer John Wyndham's story Pillar to Post features a 20th century American marooned in the far future, who reminisces, "And the music which conjured a whole world from the aged dust? No, it was not a Beethoven symphony, nor a Mozart concerto; it was, I confess, 'The Old Folks at Home'...". The song is also a trivia question in an episode of The Honeymooners and is among the songs featured in an episode of I Love Lucy.[88299]. The character Ed Norton of the Honeymooners must always play the first few bars of the song (much to Ralph Kramdens dismay) on piano before jumping into the song he actually intends to play.

The song is referenced in the 1935 Rodgers and Hart musical, Mississippi. W. C. Fields asks a piano player what song he's playing. It is "Swanee River", which is "brand new" in the time the film is set. Fields disparages the song, saying its tune is unmemorable. He then finds himself singing the song as he walks away.

Django Reinhardt recorded a version called Swanee River.

Swanee River is also the name of an Irish rock group situated in Derrymarker.

In the Flintstones episode called The Flinstone Canaries, Barney and Fred sing the chorus for an audition to land a spot on the musical TV series "Hum Along With Herman".

A remixed dance version of this song was included in the game Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix for the Nintendo Gamecube called "Frozen Pipes".

David Cross performs a piece of this song as Tobias Funke with his leather-daddy quartet in the ninth episode of Arrested Development, titled Storming the Castle.

The Tuna Helpers recorded a version on their first album Starring In... The Suspicious Fish. It is a semi hidden track—it says "All songs by The Tuna Helpers except Old Folks at Home", but it is omitted from the track listing (it is track eight). Although the band acknowledges that they did not write the song, Foster's name is not listed in the album credits, a new surrealistic interlude with Easter imagery is the only portion of the lyrics included on the band's website. Lead singer Adrienne Sneed continues to perform the song in her solo show after the band broke up.

A reference is made by the character Roy Pitt to his wife April in Terrence McNally's play Bad Habits.

Chuck Berry's rock adaptation of the song is on his 1975 self-titled Chess Records album.

Bill Chase recorded a rock version of this song entitled "Swanee River" with his band on the album Ennea released in 1972. The song is credited as Stephen Foster/Bill Chase.

References

  1. source: Christy, E. P. [sic]. Old folks at home : Ethiopian melody as sung by Christy's Minstrels. New York : Firth, Pond & Co., [date obscured].
  2. Florida Statutes Section 15.0327
  3. The Words


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