MAXWELL:  Let’s look for a new state song

2/1/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I attended all-black elementary schools in Florida, we sang the Florida state song Old Folks at Home, or “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.”

With about 40 years of hindsight, I find those innocent moments of crooning mighty strange indeed. Today, I cannot imagine us, even so young, having felt totally comfortable singing, “All de world am sad and dreary/Eb-rywhere I roam/Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary/Far from de old folks at home!” But we sang that song with gusto and did not see anything wrong with it. In fact, we loved its sentimental lyrics and soothing melody.

Now, however, the ditty that put Florida on the map and warmed our young hearts has fallen into infamy. On Thursday, a few days after the Virginia state Senate voted to scrap Carry Me Back to Old Virginny as the state song because it refers to “old massa” and “darkeys,” Florida Rep. Willie Logan, D-Opa-locka, filed a bill to remove Old Folks at Home as the state song.

Under the bill, Secretary of State Sandra Mortham would ask Florida schoolchildren to write a new song, and the winner would earn a scholarship to a state university. I like Logan’s bill, with the exception that a way should be found to award several scholarships.

Times have changed in Florida since I was a child. For example, the population is more ethnically diverse, and for this reason alone, we should find positive ways to acknowledge _ and to respect _ the sensibilities of others. Emblems intended to represent all of the citizenry should not engender unnecessary controversy or divisiveness. As we approach a new century, words such as “darkeys” offend the offspring of slaves.

Should we change the lyrics of the most popular song of the 19th century, as suggested by state Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa? Absolutely not. We should not revise this song any more than we should sanitize Huckleberry Finn. Stephen Foster’s masterpiece is a pure work of art, an entity unto itself. We cannot change it. We should not try to change it. I agree with Logan. We should preserve the historical integrity of Old Folks at Home by leaving it alone, by quietly retiring it as our state song.

We have a great opportunity, as Logan proposes, to get schoolchildren involved in writing a new song that embraces contemporary themes and concerns, that is mindful of Florida’s international mosaic. We should not, however, restrict ourselves to picking a song only from student entrants. Perhaps we can find the best song elsewhere.

Many critics will call this effort politically correct and revisionist. But I disagree. After all, the song did not come out of the natural flow of events. In fact, a group of men sat around and adopted it 62 years ago. A group of citizens could do the same thing now: quietly and cooperatively choose a new, unoffensive song that brings people together.

Unlike children of my generation, today’s children should never be asked to sing the word “darkeys” as part of the official song.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.