State song? Get kids well-versed in Florida

Published April 6, 2007

Temple Terrace Elementary School students have a head start in the race for Florida's song.

The Florida Music Educators' Association is preparing to solicit suggestions for a new state song, at the suggestion of legislators including Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa. They hope to replace the current anthem, Old Folks at Home aka Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.

In the 1851 Stephen Foster tune, a black man pines for "de old plantation" and calls out to his fellow "darkeys."

The song's critics contend that while it may have been acceptable when it was written - 10 years before the Civil War - it now demeans Florida's black citizens.

When Gov. Charlie Crist declined to play the song during his inauguration, Temple Terrace music teacher Stephen Ulrey noticed. What could replace the sad lament of Old Folks at Home?

Something fun, bright. Easy to sing.

"We needed something more rah-rah-rah, something people can clap to," Ulrey said.

He mentioned the matter to his wife, Mary Linn Ulrey, over dinner at Tampa's Colonnade Restaurant.

"She started singing the melody to me at the table," Stephen Ulrey said.

She sang the Orange Blossom Song, a memory from her childhood in Dade City. When she and her sister were about 7 or 8, they would sing its single verse at parties accompanied by their father's ukulele.

"I was like, dang, that's it!," Stephen Ulrey said. "We went home, and I grabbed the guitar and figured out the chords."

Eventually the Ulreys discovered the Orange Blossom Song was based on Where the Morning Glories Grow, written in 1917 by Illinois native Richard Whiting. At some point, Floridians had given it a citrusy makeover.

Over the next 10 days, he introduced his vision to his second- and third-grade choir, fourth- and fifth- grade choir, and general music classes. Ulrey's students would help him create a proposal for the new state song.

"I'm like a manic kind of guy," Ulrey said. "When I get an idea, it just kind of inhabits my life until it's done."

Ulrey discussed the old song's racial tension with his fourth- and fifth-graders, many of whom didn't even know the state had a song. He showed them the lyrics, explained what they meant - especially the word "darkeys."

"I explained to them, the people who wrote the song were not trying to be disrespectful," he said, but that today many consider the term offensive. He told them it had originally been written for a minstrel troupe, and explained what that meant.

"I'd be upset if the state song referred to people without hair as 'baldy,' " Ulrey told them. "I don't want to be referred to as baldy."

Some of his students, many of whom are black, reacted angrily.

"Some of them had a conditioned response that they'd learned to give" when they encountered discrimination, Ulrey said. After class, he talked to a few students he could tell were hurt.

"I said, okay, hold on a minute. I'm black," said 10-year-old Destiny Hicks, a fourth-grader. "What's up with that? I would think the old song wouldn't be a fit for the state."

Things went quickly after that.

Ulrey asked his students, when they closed their eyes and thought about Florida, what images came to mind?

Tarpon fishing. Strawberries. Sunshine.


He used those images to add a couple of verses to the one his wife had remembered.

Ulrey recorded each of the music classes singing their revamped Orange Blossom Song. He edited the best performances into a single track.

At home he played and recorded the backing instrumentals: mandolin, drums, guitar, bass and keyboard-synthesized accordion.

The resulting recording is simple and innocent, 400 bright voices singing four short verses.

They pick fruit and greet songbirds and cast fishing line.

Ulrey has written to Crist and local representatives and received encouraging responses, he said.

Soon, though, the Orange Blossom Song will have competition. By May 15, the Florida Music Educators' Association will post the guidelines for any Florida citizen to submit a song at www.justsingflorida.com.

The submission deadline will probably be in September or October, said association spokesman Katherine Mason.

Ulrey said he can't wait to hear other songwriters' efforts.

Still, he hopes to teach his kids another lesson: how the legislative process works, how a bill becomes law, how a ditty becomes a state song.

"We got to have several things happen," he said. "A motion and a bill. It could take a year or more."

He knows it's a simple song, and he considered rewriting it. Adding a chorus. But he decided to keep it simple.

"The state song needs to be something that everybody can sing, regardless of your musical skill," Ulrey said.

Michael A. Mohamed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.