Foster’s "Swanee River" Will Remain State Song

By BRENT KALLESTAD, Associated Press
Published: April 20, 2008

TALLAHASSEE – When it comes to the state song, it looks like Florida lawmakers and Floridians will still be singing the same tune. Gov. Charlie Crist won’t be humming along, however.

After spending over a year trying to come up with a new song to replace the Stephen Foster classic "Swanee River," which had lyrics some found racist, Florida politicians are expected to keep the song but update its lyrics – if they do anything at all.

The song, also known as "Old Folks at Home," would remain the state’s official song. As a compromise, a song chosen in a statewide contest – "Florida – Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky" – will be added as the state’s anthem.

Tallahassee attorney Pace Allen lobbied to keep Foster’s famous song, saying that throwing it out was "excessive." "Let’s build on our history," he said. Crist, however, considers that history offensive to some and wanted a new song.

"I didn’t have it played at my inauguration for a reason," Crist said this week, disappointed with the compromise reached by lawmakers to update the song and add an anthem. Crist said the agreement made the state look "confused."

Lawmakers may not take up the compromise, however. The House might not even get to its bill (HB 825) and Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who worked out the compromise in the Senate, said some lawmakers are worried they would look frivolous for debating on the state song while more pressing problems like budget cuts loom.

Keeping the song as it has been for 73 years does present a problem. As originally written, the song mentions of "de old plantation" and "de banjo strumming" in a dialect that mocks blacks in the Old South. When the song is sung at state functions, however, lines like "Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary" are changed to "Oh, brothers, how my heart grows weary."

Some wording was altered by the education department in the mid-1970’s to eliminate offensive lyrics when sung in public schools, but the words have never been officially changed.

"What most people remember is the melody," said State Sen. Steve Oelrich, whose district includes parts of the Suwanee River. "I’m perfectly willing to change whatever language might be offensive." Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, whose district also includes a Stephen Foster Elementary School, said his office received hundreds of calls in support of keeping Foster’s internationally recognized tune.

Lawmakers sought unsuccessfully to replace the song in 1983 and 1997 and tried again after Crist signaled his unhappiness on his inaugural day in January 2007 by replacing it with something he saw as more politically correct.

Charles Atkins, who teaches and runs a blues lab at Florida State University, thinks his "Florida’s Song" sung on that January morning would have been a good replacement, but it wasn’t among the three finalists in the statewide contest that attracted more than 200 entries.

King said many lawmakers seemed to embrace the idea of replacing "Swanee River" then during the excitement of a new incoming administration, but that was before their constituents weighed in. Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who sponsored the bill (SB 1558) to replace "Swanee River," was happy with the compromise worked out with King.

"Some people felt we were doing away with history," Hill said. "Now we have an anthem I think everybody will enjoy and it gives people an option."

Jan Hinton, the Pompano Beach music teacher who authored "Florida – Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky," also liked the arrangement that would make her song the official state anthem. "I’d be thrilled and honored," she said.

©2008 Media General Communications Holdings


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