Picture a young man sitting on an elaborate veranda on a warm afternoon. Off to his right a beautiful river languidly flows on its journey from the swamps of Georgia to the Gulf Mexico; on the left, fields of cotton stretch into the distance. He is sipping a mint julep perhaps, and listening to the lilting voices of the slaves as they sing a happy song while picking cotton for their beloved “massa.” Life is good, everyone thinks, and hopes it will stay just like this forever.
The young man is inspired to pen a song: “Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, Far, far away. Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber, Dere’s wha de old folks stay.”
The young man is, of course, Stephen C. Foster, one of America’s best-loved musical storytellers, who wrote “Old Folks at Home” (or Swanee River) in 1851, one of about 200 songs he authored during his prolific career.
While working as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati, Foster wrote his first successful songs — among them “Oh! Susanna,” and “Nelly Was a Lady”, made famous by the blackface Christy Minstrels. During the following years, Foster wrote most of his best-known songs for the Christy Minstrels: “Camptown Races,” “Nelly Bly,” “Old Folks at Home”, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.”
Many of Foster’s songs were not original; he was a “Songcatcher,” writing down songs that had been passed down for generations. And about him sitting on that southern veranda – erase that. Foster chose the Suwannee River that flows through Florida because it fit the meter of the song; he never set foot in the state. Nor the south. He visited only once, on a riverboat voyage down the Mississippi – after he had written the songs.
Swanee River became the Florida state song in 1935. In an episode of Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners called The $99,000 Answer, Ed Norton warms up on the piano by playing the opening to Swanee River. Later, on the game show of the title, the first question asked is, “Who is the composer of “Swanee River?” Ralph nervously responds with “Ed Norton,” and loses the game.
Chances are, those slaves picking cotton were not all that happy either.
Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. ― Frederick Douglass