MAXWELL:  Florida’s demeaning ditty lives on

4/13/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Here we go again. Apparently, conservative lawmakers in Tallahassee are going to have their way with The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home), Stephen Foster’s “darkey” ditty that is Florida’s state song.
In case you have been out of state or in the woods eating swamp cabbage, let me bring you up to speed on the state song issue. Several years ago, Jacksonville Sen. Tony Hill, a black Democrat, introduced a proposal (SB 1558) to replace Swanee River with a contemporary song that reflects real Florida. Swanee River uses the word “darkey” and the supposed dialect of a slave – “de old plantation,” “All de world am sad” – that most blacks, along with many whites, find insulting.
To his great credit, Gov. Charlie Crist finds the song objectionable, so much so that he refused to have it played during his 2007 inauguration.
Sadly, Hill has caved in to pressure to keep the “darkey” ditty as the state song while designating the new song, Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky), as the official state anthem. When Crist was asked Friday, during a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, what he thought of having two songs, a state song and a state anthem, he said: “It makes us look like we’re confused.”
Florida is an international destination for tourists and businesses. Ships carrying precious cargo from all points of the globe dock at our ports. We have some of the smartest residents anywhere and some of the most beautiful hard bodies anywhere (see South Beach). We are home to Kennedy Space Center and Disney World.
And yet, we have a state song that is racially demeaning, that harkens back to a time of savagery. Slavery is savagery.
Some GOP lawmakers, such as House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and House Speaker Marco Rubio, who are campaigning to keep Swanee River, are dragging around red herrings. Hasner is pretending that he is more worried about the state’s big problems, such as the economy, not small ones like song lyrics. Rubio says that he wants his colleagues to focus on “the tragic tale of what is happening to young African-American males” and stop wasting time on a song.
Well, Hasner and Rubio and others need to know that they can raise their hands and, in one second, vote to get rid of Swanee River. Then, guess what? They will have the next three weeks of the session to work on the economy and the plight of black males. The state song issue will be behind them, just like that.
The biggest irony of Swanee River is that it is not about Florida. Foster, a white man who never visited Florida, wrote the song in 1851 for a minstrel show. The word Florida is never used, and the name of the river, which is misspelled, is mentioned only one time.
In fact, I could replace the line “Way down upon de Swanee Ribber” with “Way down upon the Black Warrior Ribber” and we would be in Tuscaloosa, Ala. I could insert the Waccamaw Ribber, and we would be in South Carolina. In other words, as the song is generically written, the place could be anywhere with a ribber in the South.
To add insult to injury, conservative lawmakers, with Hill’s support, have bowdlerized Foster’s lyrics. For example, “darkeys” will become “dear ones,” and “de old plantation” will become “my childhood’s station.” Such changes are patent nonsense and a violation of authorial intent. If Foster left an estate, I wish the executors would sue the pants off this crowd in Tallahassee.
Hill should not have compromised. If Swanee River is saved as the official state song and Sawgrass becomes the anthem, future lawmakers who want a new song will have an even tougher time.
Alas, the “darkey” ditty lives on.
Correction: In my column last Sunday, I wrote that Rep. Ed Homan of Temple Terrace opposed the adoption of a new state song. Homan is co-sponsoring bills to update the state song.