Famous or infamous?
Some say the state song, sung from a slave’s perspective, should be replaced.
By MELANIE AVE
Published February 27, 2007
Florida’s famous state song about the Suwannee River, considered by many to be racially insensitive, is entering troubled waters yet again.
A legislator wants to find a new song to replace Old Folks at Home and Gov. Charlie Crist agrees.
“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.”
Crist, who decided not to play the state song at his January inauguration, met last week with state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who is pushing to replace it.
Stephen Foster, who was white, wrote the song in 1851 for a minstrel show in the voice of a black slave longing for “de old plantation.’’ It became Florida’s state song in 1935.
Better known as Way Down Upon the Swanee River, the song’s chorus uses “darkeys’’ to refer to African-Americans. Foster intended it as a way to humanize slaves, but critics say it now demeans blacks.
“The time that that song was adopted,’’ Hill said, “is not the Florida we know today.’’
Hill wants Crist to lead the effort to change the song and solicit proposals for a new one. Crist said he is reviewing Hill’s proposal but would sign a bill to change the song.
No bill has been filed.
At least two efforts to change the song failed in the Legislature in the past 20 years when supporters successfully argued how much it contributed to Florida’s history and tourism.
Some supporters say the offensive words in the song should simply be replaced.
“It made the Suwannee River popular all over the world,’’ said Frank Thomas, 63, of Lake Wales, a white folk singer who has written more than 500 songs about the state. “I don’t think any song today would be up to the standard.’’
Thomas often performs the song at the annual Florida Folk Festival at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs on the Suwannee.
Like many singers, including those at former Gov. Jeb Bush’s two inaugurations, he replaces other words for “darkeys.”
African-American state Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, said lawmakers need to review the song, and if it’s not retired, it should at least be altered.
“It seems to me that at least the parts that are offensive those need to be changed,’’ he said.
But state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa and a member of the black caucus, says Florida needs a more appropriate song because it makes too many people cringe.
“The song needs to be taken off life support and killed,’’ said Joyner.
Born in 1826, Stephen Foster spent most of his life in Pittsburgh and never stepped foot in Florida or laid eyes on the Suwannee.
Foster originally used South Carolina’s Pee Dee River but changed it to the Suwannee to fit the poetic meter of the lyrics, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music at the Stephen Foster Memorial. His version misspells the river’s name.
It was the most popular song of its time, selling hundreds of thousands sheet music long before recordings.
Foster hoped the song would show white audiences that slaves were “fully human,’’ with the same hopes and dreams as whites, said Deane Root, director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said the song is no longer protected by copyright laws, so lawmakers could easily change the offending lyrics.
“The song is so widely known all over world whether not it’s retired by the state of Florida isn’t going to change the popularity of the song,’’ Root said.
“It is possible to have state song and have no controversy whatsoever. A lot of states have those songs and most people have not heard of them.’’
Precedent for change
Change or revising a state song is not unusual.
Old Folks at Home was not even Florida’s first state song. It replaced Florida, My Florida, by the Rev. Dr. C.V. Waugh, adopted by the Legislature in 1913.
In 1986, Kentucky modernized the lyrics of the Foster tune My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night! by changing “darkies’’ to “people.”
In 1997, Virginia lawmakers retired Carry Me Back to Old Virginny because of lyrics like “old massa.’’ It became “state song emeritus’’ but 10 years later lawmakers have yet to choose a replacement.
In Florida, some lawmakers say Crist’s inauguration last month proved Old Folks at Home is finally on its way out.
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a descendant of a Confederate soldier, says he is saddened by the latest move.
Changing the song, Baxley says, would be a politically correct rewriting of history.
“The roots of Florida are deep and Southern,’’ said Baxley, adding: “It just seems in this age of multiculturalism we can celebrate everyone’s culture but mine.’’
At Crist’s inauguration, the Boys’ Choir of Tallahassee sang Florida’s Song by Charles Atkins, a 62-year-old blind piano instructor at Florida State University.
Atkins would love his tune, inspired by Ray Charles, to become the new state song.
But even if it doesn’t reach such distinction, he says Florida lawmakers should send Foster’s song down the river.
“The state,’’ Atkins said, “needs a nicer song to represent it.’’
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.