Old Folks at Home

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"Old Folks at Home"
Oldfolksathome.jpg
1851 edition
Music by Stephen Foster
Lyrics by Stephen Foster
Published 1851
Language English
Form Strophic with chorus

"Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River", "Swanee Ribber" [from the original lyrics] or "Suwannee River") is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. It is the official state song of Florida.

Composition[edit]

Map of the Suwannee basin.

Written for performance by the New York blackface troupe Christy's Minstrels, the song was credited to the troupe's leader, E. P. Christy, on early sheet music printings. Christy had paid Foster to be credited, which Foster himself had suggested but later came to regret.


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Foster had composed most of the lyrics but was struggling to name the river of the opening line, and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was "Yazoo" (in Mississippi), which despite fitting the melody perfectly, was rejected by Foster. The second suggestion was "Pee Dee" (in South Carolina), to which Foster said, "Oh pshaw! I won't have that." His brother then consulted an atlas and called out "Suwannee!" Foster said "That's it exactly!" Adding it to the lyrics, he misspelled it as "Swanee" to fit the melody.[1]

Foster himself never saw the Suwannee—or even visited Florida—but the popularity of the song initiated tourism to Florida to see the river. Since 1935 it has been the official state song of Florida, although in 2008 the original lyrics were expurgated.[2]

Controversy[edit]

Written in the first person from the perspective of a black slave (at a time when slavery was legal in half of the states of the US), the song has its narrator "longing for de old plantation,"[4] which has long drawn criticism as romanticizing slavery, although Foster himself supported the North during the American Civil War and supported abolition of slavery.[citation needed]

A word now long reckoned an ethnic slur, "darkies", that is used in the lyrics has become such an embarrassment for singers and audiences alike that, for example, the word "brothers" was sung in place of the offensive word at the dedication of the new Florida capitol building in 1978[5] and, in general, at public performances another word like "lordy," "mama," "darling," "brothers," "children," or "dear ones" is typically substituted.

The text is written, as is usual in minstrel songs, in a cross between the dialect generally spoken by African slaves and standard American English — the former being attested to as in use as late as the 1940s in the works of the black Floridian folklorist Zora Neale Hurston,[6] and is an archaic form of contemporary African American Vernacular English — and this is seen by some as racism against black Americans.[citation needed]

In practice, the pronunciation as written in dialect has long been disregarded and the corresponding standard American English usage has been sung, as witnessed by the song's performances at the 1955 Florida Folk Festival.[7]

State Song of Florida[edit]

As the official state song of Florida, "Old Folks at Home" has traditionally been sung as part of a Florida governor's inauguration ceremony. However, over time, the lyrics were progressively altered to be less offensive; as Diane Roberts observed:

Florida got enlightened in 1978; we substituted "brothers" for "darkies." There were subsequent revisions. At Jeb Bush's second inauguration as governor in 2003, a young black woman gave a moving, nondialect rendition of "Old Folks at Home," except "still longing for the old plantation" came out "still longing for my old connection." Perhaps someone confused Stephen Foster's lyrics with a cell phone commercial. [8]

In his 2007 inauguration ceremony, Charlie Crist decided to not include the state song, but rather to use in its place, "The Florida Song,"[9] a composition written by a black Floridian jazz musician, Charles Atkins. Crist then encouraged state Senator Tony Hill, who was the leader of the legislature's Black Caucus, to find a new song.[10] Hill joined forces with state Representative Ed Homan and the Florida Music Educators Association to sponsor a contest for a new state song;[11] on January 11, 2008, the song "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)" was selected as the winner. The Florida legislature considered the issue and ultimately adopted it as the state anthem while retaining "Old Folks at Home" as the state song, replacing its original lyrics with a bowdlerized version[12] approved by scholars at the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh.[13] Governor Crist stated that he was not pleased by the "two songs" decision, but signed the bill, creating a new state anthem and establishing the reworded version of the State Song by state statute,[2] rather than by resolution, like the 1935 decision.

Lyrics[edit]

The Suwannee River in Florida
"Historic Suwannee River" sign with the first line of sheet music from "Old Folks at Home" at Interstate 75's crossing of the Suwannee

"Old Folks at Home", by Stephen Foster, 1851[4]

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
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,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, 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.

3rd Verse
One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.
When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

References[edit]

  1. ^ Goodnough, Abby (January 29, 2004). "Saluting a Songwriter Far From Home". The New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Summary of Bills Related to Arts, Cultural, Arts Education. Or Historical Resources That Passed the 2008 Florida Legislature May 5, 2008". State of Florida. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Old folks at home". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2011-07-17. 
  4. ^ a b Center for American Music. "Old Folks at Home". Center for American Music Library. Archived from the original on March 13, 2009. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  5. ^ Becnel, Tom; Grimes, David (2006), Florida Curiosities, 2nd: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff, Globe Pequot Press, p. 23, ISBN 0762741066 
  6. ^ Zora Neale Hurston (1934–1948), Wall, Cheryl A., ed., Novels & Stories: Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee, Selected Stories, New York City, US: Library Classics of the United States (published 1995), pp. all, ISBN 978-0-940450-83-7 
  7. ^ Note several performances on the Florida Memory website, e.g., [1], Retrieved 2011-12-19
  8. ^ Diane K. Roberts (2004), Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and other Florida Wildlife, New York City, US: Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, p. 97, ISBN 978-0-7432-5206-5 
  9. ^ Klinkenburg, Jeff (June 1, 2008). "Jan Hinton's new Florida anthem is a song from her heart". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2011-12-19. 
  10. ^ Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Shannon (June 30, 2008). "Crist signs state song, state anthem". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  11. ^ Langley, Victoria (March 29, 2007). "Lawmakers Launch Contest to Pick New State Song". WJHG-TV. Retrieved May 2, 2011. 
  12. ^ Center for American Music. "Old Folks at Home". Center for American Music Library. Archived from the original on March 13, 2009. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  13. ^ Kleindienst, Linda (April 25, 2008). "Senate cleans up lyrics of state song". South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 2011-12-19. 

External links[edit]