Stephen Collins Foster wrote "Old Folks at Home" in 1851, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was written for E. P. Christy and his performing troupe, Christy's Minstrels. When the song was published, the words and music were attributed, with Foster's agreement, to Christy. Foster was not able to re-establish authorship until the song's copyright expired in 1879.
When Foster was writing the song, he did, indeed, intend to include a southern river in the lyric. To align with the structure of the song, the name of the river had to be two syllables. Foster enlisted his brother, Morrison, to help find a suitable body of water with a suitable name. The Yazoo and Pee Dee rivers were both considered and discarded. In fact, Foster referred to the Pee Dee River in an original draft of the song. The brothers Foster consulted an atlas and found what they were looking for except that the river's name, Suwanee (also spelled Suwannee), contained three syllables as opposed to the requisite two.
No problem. "Suwanee" was shortened to "S'wanee" to fit in with the song's rhythms.
Originating in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwanee River flows through Florida on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The song was not specifically intended to be about Florida or Georgia. It was a skewed representation of an imagined aspect of southern plantation culture at the time. Any "southern" river with a pleasant ring would have suited Mr. Foster.
Foster never visited Florida and never saw the Suwanee River.
"Old Folks at Home," titled as "S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)," was promoted as a new state song for Florida in House Concurrent Resolution No. 22, sponsored by S. P. Robineau of Miami. Introduced in the midst of the Great Depression, we can speculate that its sentimental lyric and warm melody may have brought some comfort to a portion of the general populace. However, the obvious reference to a particular racial stereotype pervaded the song. It was a song of its time, written ten years before the start of the Civil War.
House Concurrent Resolution No. 22
BE IT RESOLVED by the House of Representatives of the State of Florida, the Senate concurring:
THAT, from and after the adoption of this amendment, the official song of The State of Florida, to be sung in the schools and at all other public or official gatherings, shall be “The S’wanee River (Old Folks at Home),” written by Stephen Foster and entered according to an Act of Congress by Firth, Pond, & Co. in 1851, in the Clerk’s office of the District Court of the Southern District of New York. The following is the song:
Way down upon de S’wanee 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.
All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-ry where I roam,
Oh! darkeys how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.
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.
One little hut among 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?
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that House Concurrent Resolution No. 24, The Laws of Florida, Acts of 1913, be and the same is hereby repealed.
On May 24, 1935, the Florida Legislature, in its 25th Regular Session, adopted "The S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)" as the official state song, replacing "Florida, My Florida," which had been adopted as the State Song in 1913.
On May 29, 1935, Governor David Sholtz signed House Concurrent Resolution No. 22. The measure declared "The S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home), " by Stephen Foster, the official song of the State of Florida and repealed 1913's House Concurrent Resolution No. 24, The Laws of Florida, Acts of 1913.
The University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music contends that
The song started the tourist industry in Florida; beginning in 1880s, it drew millions of people from around the world seeking the symbolic river and idyllic home described in the song's words
But trouble lay ahead for this new state song.
It took time for trouble to gain steam, but gather momentum it did. The trouble that emerged was embodied in the implications of the song that seem so obvious and unacceptable to us today. Simply put, the language and subject matter were decried as racist, recalling slavery and the subjugation of African-Americans in American history.
As time passed, calls to replace "The S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)" became more demanding. Attempts to sanitize the song with more acceptable language were dismissed as many contended it was simply not enough to replace "darkies" with "loved ones" and "ribber" with "river."
The Civil Rights movement and political necessity forced the issue.
As printed in the program for the dedication of the New Capitol on March 31, 1978, "brothers" was substituted for "darkeys" in the chorus of "Old Folks at Home." Leon and Lynn Dallin, in Heritage Songster, used "dear ones." The Dallins also eliminated all attempts at reproducing dialect.
A failed attempt to change the state song from "The S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)" was made in 1983.
In 1997, House Bill No 1069 proposed formation of an 11-member State Song Committee to sponsor a contest for a new state song. This effort also failed.
At Governor Jeb Bush's two inauguration ceremonies (1999 and 2003), "The S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)," with modified lyrics, was performed by African-American women; Lisa Kemp and Ardelia Butts, respectively.
At the 2007 inauguration ceremony for Governor Charlie Crist the official song of the State of Florida, sanitized or otherwise, was missing in action. Political expediency was taking hold.
Crist purposefully made the choice not to use the song at his inauguration. Instead, "Florida's Song" by Charles Atkins, was performed.
"There are lyrics in it that are, in the opinion of some, a derogatory reference to some time in our historical past that involves slavery," Crist said. "I can't condone it."
Kentucky has also adopted a Stephen C. Foster composition, "My Old Kentucky Home," for its official state song in 1928. It's believed that Foster composed this song sometime in 1853 and it's interesting to note that "My Old Kentucky Home," like "S'wanee River (Old Folks at Home)," is also a song of longing, yearning. The words to "My Old Kentucky Home" were sanitized by resolution in 1986.
"The State Song." Department of State: Office of Historical and Cultural Programs. State of Florida. Web. 22 Nov. 2004.
"Stephen Foster." The Center for American Music. University of Pittsburgh. Web. 22 Nov. 2004. <http://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/foster.htm>.
Ave, Melanie. "Famous or Infamous?" The Tampa Bay Times. The Tampa Bay TImes, 28 Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2014. <http://www.sptimes.com/2007/02/28/State/Famous_or_infamous.shtml>.
Kushner, David Z. "Reflections on the State Songs of Florida." Bar-Ilan University. Bar-Ilan University, 28 June 2008. Web. 3 May 2015.
Shankle, George Earlie. State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers, and Other Symbols. Irvine, Calif.: Reprint Services Corp, Revised edition, 1971.
Shearer, Benjamin F. and Barbara S. State Names, Seals, Flags and Symbols: A Historical Guide Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 3 Sub edition, 2001.
State songs: Complete list of official state songs from NETSTATE.COM
More symbols & emblems: Complete list of official Florida state symbols from NETSTATE.COM.
State Songs of America, by Michael J. Bristow. 185 pages. Publisher: Greenwood (February 28, 2000)
State Songs of America provides the music and lyrics for the official songs adopted by the state governments. Arranged alphabetically by state, each song has a single vocal line over a piano accompaniment, with one verse only under the vocal line and remaining verses appearing separately. Each entry includes the date the song was adopted, the name of the composer, and in some instances, a brief history of the song. The book will be a useful reference for those wanting to perform a state song or to find the official songs of other states. Keep in mind that this book was published in 2000 and does not contain later adoptions.
State Songs: Anthems and Their Origins, by John Hladczuk, Sharon Schneider Hladczuk. 240 pages. Publisher: Scarecrow Press (September 26, 2000)
State Songs: Anthems and Their Origins is a tremendous resource, from which readers will gain insight into the heritage of American statehood. Histories of these songs, biographical information about the composers and lyricists, and background on each song's entrance into status as "official" make this source the most comprehensive in existence. The entries include sheet music, allowing readers to reproduce for themselves the tunes that have proved so important in the history of the Union. Music teachers, history teachers, librarians, and anyone else interested in learning more about the United States will not want to be without State Songs. Organized alphabetically by state. Keep in mind that this book was published in 2000 and does not contain later adoptions.