Most of us who have spent some time in the Southern states of Georgia and Florida are familiar with the blackwater Suwannee River. Not to be confused with Sewanee, the Suwannee River runs in the heart of the Deep South, and has inspired a beloved song, “Old Folks at Home,” or “Swannee River,” as it’s more popularly known, as well as the famous Gershwin favorite, “Swanee.”
Stephen Foster wrote the tune “Old Folks at Home” in 1851, having never even visited the river. Our Florida readers (hi, Becky!) will be happy to know that this is their official state song, and gained the state great tourism popularity as it gained notoriety. It has even been performed at Florida governor inaugurations. It’s been recorded by Ray Charles, Tony Sheridan, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and even, Tobias Funke. Each January, the town of White Springs, Florida comes out to pay tribute to its river with a concert. While its antiquated lyrics have been updated a bit, the nostalgic message of “Old Folks at Home” remains the same — a longing for the familiarity of home. Have a listen to “Old Folks” and some other great Florida folk music here.
In 1919, George Gershwin wrote another popular tune about the River. Taking inspiration from “Old Folks at Home,” and even including some of Foster’s lyrics in his parody, Gershwin claims to have written “Swanee” in 10 minutes, on a bus ride in Manhattan for his New York City revue. The big production number turned out to have huge success, having been recorded numerous times, and even reaching the #1 position on the charts in 1920 for 9 weeks. It’s been recorded by many popular artists, including a recent recording by indie favorite Rufus Wainwright.
I just love the upbeat lyrics celebrating our D-i-x-i-e!
“The birds are singin’, it is song time
The banjos strummin’ soft and low
I know that you
Yearn for me too
Swanee! You’re calling me!”
And I love this version, sung by the wonderful Judy Garland in “A Star is Born.”