Old Folks at Home

Regional anthem of  Florida
LyricsStephen Foster, 1851, revised in 2008
MusicStephen Foster, 1851
Published1851; 173 years ago (1851)
Adopted1935; 89 years ago (1935)
Audio sample
"Old Folks at Home" performed by Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1918)

"Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River") is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. Since 1935, it has been the official state song of Florida, although in 2008 the original lyrics were revised.[1] It is Roud Folk Song Index no. 13880.[2]


Map of the Suwannee River basin

"Old Folks at Home" was commissioned in 1851 by E. P. Christy for use by Christy's Minstrels, his minstrel troupe. Christy also asked to be credited as the song's creator, and was so credited on early sheet music printings. As a result, while the song was a success, Foster did not directly profit much from it, though he continued to receive royalties for the song.[3]

Foster had composed most of the lyrics but was struggling to name the river of the opening line, and asked his brother, Morrison, to suggest one. Morrison wrote, “One day in 1851, Stephen came into my office, on the bank of the Monongahela, Pittsburgh, and said to me, ‘What is a good name of two syllables for a Southern river? I want to use it in this new song of Old Folks at Home.’ I asked him how Yazoo would do. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘that has been used before.’ I then suggested Pedee. ‘Oh, pshaw,’ he replied ‘I won’t have that.’ I then took down an atlas from the top of my desk and opened the map of the United States. We both looked over it and my finger stopped at the ‘Swanee,’ a little river in Florida emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. ‘That’s it, that’s it exactly,’ exclaimed he delighted, as he wrote the name down; and the song was finished, commencing, ‘Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.’ He left the office, as was his custom, abruptly, without saying another word, and I resumed my work.” [4] Foster himself never saw the Suwannee, or even visited Florida, but nevertheless Florida made "Old Folks At Home" its state song in 1935, replacing "Florida, My Florida".[5] Despite the song's popularity during the era, few people outside of Florida actually knew where the Suwannee River was, or that it was even a real place.[6]

Antonín Dvořák's Humoresque No. 7, written in the 1890s, is musically similar and is sometimes played along with "Old Folks at Home". The Library of Congress's National Jukebox presents a version with soprano Alma Gluck and violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr.[7] Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper sing a duet of Old Folks at Home combined with Humoresque No. 7 in the 1936 film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.[8]

Lyrics revisions

Written in the first person from the perspective and in the dialect of an African slave (at a time when slavery was legal in 15 of the states of the US), the song's narrator states "longing for de old plantation",[9] which has been criticized as romanticizing slavery. On the other hand, a longing for the "old folks at home" has sometimes been interpreted, for example, by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), as a longing for the people and traditions of Africa, where most of the human beings enslaved in the New World had been free before they were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The word, "darkies", used in Foster's lyrics, has been amended; for example, "brothers" was sung in place of "darkies" at the dedication of the new Florida state capitol building in 1978.[10] In general, at public performances another word like "lordy", "mama", "darling", "brothers", "children", or "dear ones" is typically substituted.

In practice, the pronunciation, as written in dialect, has long been disregarded in favor of the corresponding standard American English usage, as demonstrated by the song's performances at the 1955 Florida Folk Festival.[11]

State song of Florida

As the official state song of Florida, "Old Folks at Home" has traditionally been sung as part of a Florida governor's inauguration ceremony. However, over time, the lyrics were progressively altered to be less offensive; as Diane Roberts observed:

Florida got enlightened in 1978; we substituted "brothers" for "darkies". There were subsequent revisions. At Jeb Bush's second inauguration as governor in 2003, a young black woman gave a moving, nondialect rendition of "Old Folks at Home", except "still longing for the old plantation" came out "still longing for my old connection". Perhaps someone confused Stephen Foster's lyrics with a cell phone commercial.[12]

In his 2007 inauguration ceremony, Charlie Crist decided not to include the state song, but rather to use in its place, "The Florida Song", a composition written by a black Floridian jazz musician, Charles Atkins.[13] Crist then encouraged state Senator Tony Hill, who was the leader of the legislature's Black Caucus, to find a new song.[14] Hill joined forces with state Representative Ed Homan and the Florida Music Education Association to sponsor a contest for a new state song.[15]

On January 11, 2008, the song "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)" was selected as the winner. The Florida Legislature considered the issue and ultimately adopted it as the state anthem while retaining "Old Folks at Home" as the state song, replacing its original lyrics with a revised version approved by scholars at the Stephen Foster Memorial.[16][17] Governor Crist stated that he was not pleased by the "two songs" decision; but he signed the bill, creating a new state anthem and establishing the reworded version of the state song by statute, rather than by resolution like the 1935 decision.[1][5]


Original lyrics
by Stephen Foster, 1851[9]
State Song of Florida
as revised in 2008[5]

Way down upon de Swanee ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Ebry where I roam;
Oh! darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!

2nd verse
All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I;
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.

3rd Verse
One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.
When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

Way down upon the Suwannee River,
Far, far away,
There's where my heart is turning ever,
There's where the old folks stay.

All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for my childhood station,
And for the old folks at home.

All the world is sad and dreary
Everywhere I roam.
O dear ones, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.

2nd verse
All ‘round the little farm I wander’d,
When I was young;
Then many happy days I squander’d,
Many the songs I sung.
When I was playing with my brother,
Happy was I.
Oh, take me to my kind old mother,
There let me live and die.

3rd Verse
One little hut among the bushes,
One that I love.
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.
When will I see the bees a humming,
All ‘round the comb?
When shall I hear the banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home.

Notable recordings

Joel Whitburn identifies early successful recordings by Len Spencer (1892), Vess Ossman (1900), Haydn Quartet (1904), Louise Homer (1905), Alma Gluck (1915), Taylor Trio (1916) and by Oscar Seagle and Columbia Stellar Quartet (1919).[18]

The song enjoyed a revival in the 1930s with versions by Jimmie Lunceford[19] and by Bunny Berigan.[20] Bing Crosby sang the song in the 1935 movie Mississippi and also recorded the song commercially the same year.[21]

Ray Charles used it as an inspiration for his 1957 remake of the song on the Atlantic label, entitled: "Swanee River Rock (Talkin' 'Bout That River)".

Kenny Ball And His Jazzmen recorded a swing version of the song (using only the first verse and chorus twice over and substituting "Lordy" for "darkies") in 1962 for Pye Records.[22] The recording appeared on the B side of their 1963 single "Sukiyaki". Another swing version was recorded by Hugh Laurie (2011).[23]

Tony Sheridan recorded it in 1962 on the Polydor label as a Rock'n Roll song with his backing band The Beat Brothers.

Larry Groce sang the song on Disney Children's Favorite Songs 2 in 1979, omitting the second verse.

Other media appearances

See also


  1. ^ a b "Summary of Bills Related to Arts, Cultural, Arts Education. Or Historical Resources That Passed the 2008 Florida Legislature May 5, 2008" (PDF). State of Florida. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 28, 2013. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  2. ^ "Old Folks At Home". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
  3. ^ Studwell, William Emmett (1997). The Americana Song Reader. Psychology Press. p. 114. ISBN 0789001500.
  4. ^ Earhart, Will (1946). Songs of Stephen Foster Prepared for Schools and General Use. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 42–43.
  5. ^ a b c State Song: Old Folks At Home, Florida Department of State
  6. ^ Memory's Milestones: Reminiscences of Seventy Years of a Busy Life in Pittsburgh.
  7. ^ "Old folks at home". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2011-07-17.
  8. ^ "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town". YouTube.com. YouTube. Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  9. ^ a b Center for American Music. "Old Folks at Home". Center for American Music Library. Archived from the original on January 16, 2009. Retrieved October 1, 2012.
  10. ^ Becnel, Tom; Grimes, David (2006), Florida Curiosities, 2nd: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff, Globe Pequot Press, p. 23, ISBN 0762741066
  11. ^ Note several performances on the Florida Memory website, e.g., [1], Retrieved 2011-12-19
  12. ^ Diane K. Roberts (2004), Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and other Florida Wildlife, New York City, US: Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, p. 97, ISBN 978-0-7432-5206-5
  13. ^ Klinkenburg, Jeff (June 1, 2008). "Jan Hinton's new Florida anthem is a song from her heart". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on October 15, 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-19.
  14. ^ Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Shannon (June 30, 2008). "Crist signs state song, state anthem". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on October 15, 2012. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  15. ^ Langley, Victoria (March 29, 2007). "Lawmakers Launch Contest to Pick New State Song". WJHG-TV. Archived from the original on September 28, 2011. Retrieved May 2, 2011.
  16. ^ Center for American Music. "Old Folks at Home". Center for American Music Library. Archived from the original on January 11, 2009. Retrieved October 1, 2012.
  17. ^ Kleindienst, Linda (April 25, 2008). "Senate cleans up lyrics of state song". South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Archived from the original on 2012-08-26. Retrieved 2011-12-19.
  18. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 561. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  19. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 284. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  20. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 52. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  21. ^ "A Bing Crosby Discography". BING magazine. International Club Crosby. Retrieved May 30, 2017.
  22. ^ "Swanee River- Kenny Ball And His Jazzmen - 1962 Pye Records". YouTube.com. 2009-07-22. Retrieved 2018-03-14.
  23. ^ Hugh Laurie - Swanee River (From Let Them Talk : Special Edition).