Tune of the Day: Old Folks at Home
Also known by the words of its first line, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”, this song was written in 1851 by composer Stephen Foster to be performed by the New York performing troupe Christy's Minstrels. The name of E.P. Christy, the troupe's leader, appears on early printings of the music as the song's creator: Christy had paid Foster $5 to be credited, something Foster himself had suggested though later regretted.
According to legend, Foster had most of the lyrics but was trying to give a name to the river of the opening line and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was “the Yazoo” of Mississippi, which, despite fitting the melody perfectly, Foster rejected. The second suggestion was “the Pee Dee” of the Carolinas, to which Foster said, “Oh pshaw! I won't have that.” His brother then consulted an atlas and called out “Suwannee!”. Foster wrote it immediately in (misspelling it “Swanee” to fit the melody), saying “That's it exactly!”. Foster himself never saw the Suwannee or even visited Florida, but the popularity of the song started the tourist industry in Florida: beginning in the 1880s, it drew millions of people from around the world seeking the symbolic river and idyllic home described in the song's words. In 1935 “Old Folks at Home” was even adopted as the official state song of Florida.