Swanee songs

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The song "Old Folks at Home" was written in 1851 by Stephen Foster. It was the biggest hit song of the 19th Century. It became known by the single word name "Swanee".

Origin of Swanee[edit]

In 1851 Stephen Foster wrote, both words and music, the song "Old Folks at Home". It starts with the line "Way down upon the Swanee ribber."[1]  The original sheet music calls it an "Ethiopian Melody  as sung by Christy's Minstrels  written and composed by E.P. Christy."  It was commonly called "Way Down on the Swanee River" and became the most influential song ever written in America.[2]  Dozens and dozens of songs written into the late 20th Century either used Swanee in the title, or in the lyric.  Oddly, there was no Swanee river.  The name was derived from the Suwannee river in Florida.  The first draft of the song cited the Pedee river, an actual tributary in South Carolina. In that draft Pedee is crossed out, with Swanee written over it.[3]  

Christy paid Foster a flat fee to claim credit. Foster received royalties for his composition. Long before recordings and other mass media, songs spread via live performance and sheet music, and this song was a smash hit.[4] In 1851 the play Old Folks at Home opened at Barnum's Museum and Lecture Room.  The pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk had it in his programs as early as 1853, as did other classical performers.[5]  Field slaves in the South were heard singing it.[6]   

After the Civil War the Fisk Jubilee University Singers used it in their programs of Negro spirituals.[7]  AntoninDvorak conducted his own arrangement of it.[8]  The composer Charles Ives wrote that his famous bandmaster father, George Ives, had raised him "and most of the children of (Danbury, Connecticut) for that matter, on Bach and Stephen Foster.” [9] When Uncle Tom's Cabin was first performed in Pittsburgh, on November 17, 1853, the musical numbers included "Old Folks at Home."[10]   A little over a hundred years later the Beatles performed the song in Hamburg and also recorded it.[11]  

Irving Berlin's first big hit song, Alexander's Ragtime Band, published in 1911, quoted the melody, and contained the line:  

         And if you want to hear              The Swanee River           Played in ragtime  

Mr. Berlin displayed a portrait of Mr. Foster in his office.[12] In his score for the all black musical film Hallelujah, in 1929,  he paid homage to Foster with the song Swanee Shuffle.[13] George Gershwin's first hit song, Swanee, with lyrics by Irving Caesar, was written in 1917. The duo had set out to write a song modeled on Old Folks at Home. It languished until 1919 when Al Jolson heard George play it at a party.  Jolson put it in his new review and song sold over a million copies.[14] Irving Caesar, along with Al Jolson, returned to the subject with Swanee River Trail 1927. In 1919 alone over half a dozen songs which sold well featured Swanee in the title. Curiously, most of these songs were written by songwriters from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, containing references to a mythical place, the “South.”  Hoagy Carmichael, born in Bloomington, Indiana,  also wrote often about this largely fictional place.  His first published song was Riverboat Shuffle (1924).  He went on to evoke the South in: "New Orleans", "Lazy Bones", "Rockin' Chair", and "Georgia on My Mind". "Georgia on My Mind" is the state song of Georgia.[15] Eubie Blake composed and recorded the song Fantasy on Swanee River in 1923. He was also filmed playing this composition in 1923 in a Lee DeForest Photofilm.[16]   Duke Ellington recorded Irving Berlin's Swanee Shuffle in 1929.  He wrote the song Swanee Rhapsody in 1930.  He returned to the subject in 1962 with Swanee Lullaby.  

In the 1970's mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani performed Foster's parlor ballads.[17]  Thomas Hampson released a CD of Stephen Foster songs in 1992.[18]  Mark Morris[disambiguation needed] said "I like those songs and will defend them,But it's complicated, because some people think Huckleberry Finn is horrifyingly racist, and I don't.  What is better than Way Down upon the Swanee River?  We all know it, and we're horrified to sing it."[19]

Popular songs with Swanee, or Suwanee, in the titles[edit]

  • "CAMPIN' ON DE OLE SWANEE" 1899 m. Tony Parker
  • "DOWN WHERE THE SWANEE RIVER FLOWS" 1903 m. Harry Von Tilzer
  • "SUWANEE ECHOS" 1904 m. Al W. Brown
  • "SWANEE BABE" 1909 w. Jack Drislane m. Dick Richards
  • "JUST AS LONG AS THE SWANEE FLOWS" 1911 w. Alfred Bryant m. Henriette Blanke-Belcher
  • "I'LL BUILD A PRETTY CABIN WHERE THE SWANEE RIVER FLOWS" 1912 w. Ballard MacDonald m. Harry Piani
  • "TAKE ME TO THAT SWANEE SHORE" 1912 w. L. Wolfe Gilbert m. Lewis Muir
  • "SWANEE ROSE" 1913 w. J,R. Shannon m. J.S. Zamecnick
  • "OLD SWANEE RAG" 1913 m. R.G. Grady
  • "UNDER THE SWANEE MOON"  1913 w.m. Dick Howard
  • "ON THE BANKS OF THE SWANEE RIVER" w.m. Mrs. C. Dickson
  • "DOWN WHERE THE SWANEE RIVER FLOWS 1916 w.m. Charles McCarron & Charles Alberte m. Albert Von Tilzer
  • "SWANEE" 1919 w. Irving Caesar m. George Gershwin
  • "TILL THE SWANEE RIVER RUNS DRY"  1919 w. & m. Jack Mahoney
  • "−SWANEE!  I'M GONNA SIGH NO MORE"  1919 w.m. Eugene Bateman
  • "I'VE GOT THE SWANEE RIVER FLOWING THRU MY VEINS"  1919 w. Ed Rose m. Billy Baskette
  • "SWANEE LULLABY" 1919 w. Howard W. Rogers m. Billy Baskette
  • "MY SWANEE HOME  1919 w.m. Harry Hamilton
  • "SWANEE SHORE"  1919 w.Sidney D. Mitchell, Irving Kaufman m. Arthur Fields
  • "WHEN IT'S MOONLIGHT ON THE SWANEE SHORE" 1920 w.m. Richard Whiting
  • "SWANEE RIVER MOON" 1921 m. H. Pitman Clarke
  • "ROCK ME IN MY SWANEE CRADLE"  1922 w. Mitchell Parish m. Eleanor Young & Harry Squires
  • "SILVER SWANEE"  1922 w. Eddie Cantor m. Jean Schwartz
  • "MY SWANEE HOME"  1922 w.m. Robert Duryea & Norman Vause
  • "SWANEE BLUEBIRD"  1922 w. Cliff Friend m. Con Conrad
  • "SWANEE SMILES"  1922 w. m. Fred Hager & Justin Ring
  • "DON'T CRY, SWANEE" 1923 " w. Buddy DeSylva, Al Jolson m. Con Conrad
  • "SWANEE CABIN" 1923
  • "SWANEE ROSE"  1923 w.m. Harry L. Stone
  • "THERE'S A BEND AT THE END OF THE SWANEE  1923 w.m. Louis Breau, Charles Tobias
  • "SWANEE RIVER ROSE 1924 w. Frank Davis m. Sam Braverman
  • "I'M HAUNTED BY THAT SWANEE RIVER SONG"  1924 w.m. Troy, Smith & Carlton
  • "SWANEE RIVER DREAMS  1924 w.m. Wendell Hall, Carson Robison
  • "SWANEE BUTTERFLY" 1925 w. Billy Rose m. Walter Donaldson
  • "HELLO, SWANEE, HELLO!" 1926 w. Sam Coslow m. Addy Britt
  • "SWANEE RIVER TRAIL 1927 w.m. Al Jolson, Irving Caesar
  • "SWANEE SHORE" 1927 w. Cliff Hess m. Charles Bourne
  • "SWANEE CRADLE OF MINE 1928 w Sam Ward, m Lew Pollack
  • "SWANEE SHUFFLE 1929 w.m. Irving Berlin (MGM Film: "Hallelujah")
  • "SWANEE RHAPSODY  1930 w. Clarence Gaskill m. Duke Ellington
  • "SWANEE MOON" 1932 w.m. Edgar Lund, Johnny See & Allen Daniels
  • "SHADOWS ON THE SWANEE" 1933 w. Joe Young, Johnny Burke m. Harold Spina
  • "SWANEE WOMAN"  1933
  • "WHERE THE SWANEE RIVER FLOWS THRU' HEAVEN" 1933 w. John Redmond Jack Lynch m. Ernie Davis
  • "SWANEE RIVER DREAM MAN" 1934 w. Cliff Friend, Charles Tobias m. Neil Moret
  • "SOUL OF THE SWANEE"  1941
  • "SWANEE RIVER ROCK"  1957 w.m. Ray Charles
  • "SWANEE RIVER GAL"  1959 w.m. T.D. Ashburn"
  • "SWANEE LULLABY"  1962 m. Duke Ellington


  1. ^ http://www.netstate.com/states/symb/song/fl_swanee_river.htm retrieved 10/31/18
  2. ^ https://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/OldFolksatHome.html retrieved 10/31/18
  3. ^ https://songofamerica.net/song/old-folks-at-home/ retrieved 10/31/18
  4. ^ http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/christy-and-foster
  5. ^ http://www.hawaiipublicradio.org/post/classical-music-usa-1-billings-gottschalk-foster Retrieved 10/31/18
  6. ^ https://www.tbo.com/news/politics/2007/jan/20/racist-screed-or-enlightened-work-state-song-stirs-ar-132773/ retrieved 10/31/18
  7. ^ Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865 By K. Stephen Prince, UNC Press Books, 2014
  8. ^ https://www.allmusic.com/search/songs/Swanee+River+(Old+Folks+at+Home) retrieved 10/31/18
  9. ^ Charles Ives, "my Father's Song": A Psychoanalytic Biography By Stuart Feder, Yale University Press, 1992
  10. ^ The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster: A Revealing Portrait of the Forgotten By JoAnne O'Connell, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016
  11. ^ https://www.beatlesbible.com/1962/05/24/recording-sweet-georgia-brown-swanee-river/ retrieved 10/31/18
  12. ^ https://www.history.com/speeches/irving-berlin-on-stephen-foster, retrieved 10/31/18
  13. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019959/reference, retrieved 10/31/18
  14. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019959/reference. retrieved 10/31/18
  15. ^ http://www.hoagy.com/catalogue, retrieved 10/31/18
  16. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0014026/reference, retrieved 10/31/18
  17. ^ https://www.allmusic.com/album/songs-by-stephen-foster-vol-1-2-mw0000877708. retrieved 10/31/18
  18. ^ American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster Thomas Hampson, Audio CD, Capital Records, 1992,
  19. ^ DANCE;Stepping Out With Stephen Foster By KEN EMERSON, The New York Times, DEC. 3, 1995