The Old Folks at Home


Below is detailed information of "Old Folks at Home" or "Way Down Upon the Swanee River":

  • State song of Florida, adopted in 1935 through House Concurrent Resolution no. 22.
  • Words and music written in 1851 by Stephen Collins Foster in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for E.P. Christy and his performing troupe, Christy's Minstrels, in New York. E.P. Christy paid Foster for the privilege of having his name appear as composer of Old Folks at Home, apparently at Foster's suggestion, an arrangement Foster later tried to reverse
  • First line: "Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away"
  • In the original draft of the song in Foster's sketchbook, Foster used the Pedee River instead of the Suwannee
  • Most popular song ever published at that time; sold 100s of thousands of copies
  • The first international "folk song," familiar in every culture of every continent
  • Foster never saw the Suwannee River, never visited Florida. The river was chosen from an atlas to fit the poetic meter of the lyrics
  • The song started the tourist industry in Florida; beginning in 1880s, it drew millions of people from around the world seeking the symbolic river and idyllic home described in the song's words
  • Meanings of the words, significance of the song (selective list, paraphrased, based on interpretations reported in the literature):

    Foster's intended meaning (1850s): No matter how far we may travel or what sadness the world imposes on us, all our hearts ache for the best memories of childhood, the security of a family and parents ("old folks"), the familiarity of a home.

    Post-reconstruction era (1870s-1890s): Blacks yearn to go back to the plantation, where they were better off. (The song was performed condescendingly and with exaggerated dialect.)

    Harry T. Burleigh and Antonin Dvorak (1890s): A "heart song" of the American people, a folk song alongside slave's spirituals.

    W.E.B. DuBois (ca. 1900): Old Folks at Home is legitimately considered an authentic song of the Negro race, who have adopted it to express their own emotions.

    W.C. Handy ("Father of the Blues" in his autobiography, 1955): Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, and Old Black Joe helped bring about emancipation, and owe something to the "well of sorrow" that gave rise to the blues.

    Civil Rights Era (1950s-1960s): Any song ever associated with negative ethnic images should be eliminated.

    Postmodern era (1980s-1990s): Any song (even The Star Spangled Banner and America) can be interpreted both positively and negatively. Old Folks at Home has hundreds of meanings around the world.

  • Related songs by Foster (date of composition):
  • Nelly Was a Lady (1849): First known song for the mass market to insist on an African-American woman as a "lady" and to portray a married African-American couple as a faithful, loving husband and wife destroyed by slavery

    My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night (1852): over several years Foster had tried to persuade professional performers to portray African-Americans with dignity; this is his first song for the professional stage published without dialect

    Old Dog Tray (1853): Foster's first song for the professional stage in which race is not identifiable

    Hard Times Come Again No More (1854): race is not identifiable, and those who can afford life's pleasures are asked to "sup sorrow with the poor"

    Old Black Joe (1860): a secular hymn written by a white man to the beauty and dignity of a black man, first such song in American history

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Last updated November 19, 2010