The song was written for a New York City revue called Demi-Tasse, which opened in October 1919 in the Capitol Theater. Caesar and Gershwin, who was then aged 20, claimed to have written the song in about ten minutes riding on a bus in Manhattan, finishing it at Gershwin's apartment. It was written partly as a parody of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home". It was originally used as a big production number, with 60 chorus girls dancing with electric lights in their slippers on an otherwise darkened stage.
The song had little impact in its first show, but not long afterwards Gershwin played it at a party where Al Jolson heard it. Jolson then put it into his show Sinbad, already a success at the Winter Garden Theatre, and recorded it for Columbia Records in January 1920. "After that," said Gershwin, "Swanee penetrated the four corners of the earth.". The song was charted in 1920 for 18 weeks holding No. 1 position for nine. It sold a million sheet music copies, and an estimated two million records. It became Gershwin's first hit and the biggest-selling song of his career; the money he earned from it allowed him to concentrate on theatre work and films rather than writing further single pop hits. Arthur Schwartz said: "It's ironic that he never again wrote a number equaling the sales of Swanee, which for all its infectiousness, doesn't match the individuality and subtlety of his later works."
Jolson recorded the song several times in his career, and performed it in the movies The Jolson Story (1946), Rhapsody in Blue (1946), and Jolson Sings Again (1949). For the song's performance in The Jolson Story, Jolson, rather than actor Larry Parks, appeared as himself, filmed in long shot. Although usually associated with Jolson, "Swanee" has been recorded by many other singers, most notably Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. Rufus Wainwright performs the song on his 2007 album, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. In 1979 "Swanee" was performed by the Muppets.
- Al Jolson - rec. January 8, 1920 - released as Columbia A 2884, matrix 78917-2
- Judy Garland - 1939, in 1954 for A Star is Born, and for her 1961 live concert album Judy at Carnegie Hall
- Al Jolson - 1943 - included in the movie "Rhapsody In Blue" (1945)
- Al Jolson - rec. August 10, 1945 - released as Decca 23470, matrix L 3912
- Jaye P. Morgan - 1955 chart single
- The Temptations - 1968 - released on "Live at the Copa" album
- Muppets - rec. 1979 - broadcast as part of Episode 402 of The Muppet Show (refrain only): available here
- Suwannee River of southern Georgia and northern Florida.
- Pubdomian-Popular Public Domain Music | Love Songs | Swanee song lyrics | George Gershwin
- Al Jolson Society
- CD liner notes: Chart-Toppers of the Twenties, 1998 ASV Ltd.
- Britannica Educational Publishing (2009-10-01). The 100 Most Influential Musicians of All Time, p. 164. The Rosen Publishing Group. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
- Open Writing: Swanee
- Available here.