MAXWELL:  ‘Swanee River’ out of flow as state song

4/6/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Correction (04/13/08): 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.

We call Florida the Sunshine State. We should call it the Benighted State, mainly because our lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are a bunch of ideologues whose constituents follow them blindly. And our Democrats can’t even hold a legitimate primary to send delegates to their national convention. We’re funny folks.
And so here we are again making ourselves the laughingstock of the nation. This time, we’re debating whether to keep the contemptible old state song, Stephen Foster’s Swanee River (Old Folks at Home), or adopt a new one that’s 21st century, inclusive and inspirational.
GOP lawmakers Jim King, Stephen Oelrich, Ed Homan and Charles Dean are heading up a gang of fellow Bubbas to block the adoption of Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky, by South Florida elementary school teacher Jan Hinton. Her song truly is about Florida.
“This is history,” Oelrich told the St. Petersburg Times of Swanee River. “I’m not in favor of changing the song. Nor are my constituents.”
History? What history? Swanee River didn’t become the state song until 1935, when bigoted legislators, longing for plantations and pliant slaves, adopted it by resolution.
In my high school in Crescent City, we didn’t sing Old Folks at Home, with its strange, insulting dialect: “de Swanee Ribber”; “Dere’s wha de old folks stay”; “All de world am sad and dreary”; “Ebry where I roam”; “playing wid my brudder”; “my kind old mudder”; “Oh! Darkeys”; “One dat I love”; and “I hear de banjo tumming.”
I do recall that our music teacher, Mr. Florence, tried a few times to coax us into singing it. Each time, however, we boys laughed until we cried. Laughing himself, Mr. Florence finally gave up on us.
Our homeroom teacher, Constance Howard, dismissed the song as “sickening blackface minstrelsy.” Years later, I learned that she was right. Foster, a white man, wrote Old Folks at Home in 1851 for a minstrel show. Most historians say he never set foot on Florida soil.
At Middleton High School, whenever someone wanted an instant laugh, he’d bellow a few lines from Swanee River. Satirizing Foster, I penned a very bad song about the “de ole St. Johns Ribber,” which flows into “big” Lake George near Crescent City. Instead of the travails of a “darkey,” I used those of a “white Cracker” pining for “mah fishing camp on dar St. John’s Ribber.” Most of the lyrics, which I’ve pretty much forgotten, were foul. We never sang them when adults were around.
I learned many years ago that rural, white Floridians are pitiful when they wax nostalgic. They lose all sense of reality, forgetting that Florida is a long, funny-shaped peninsula of contradiction and paradox. Here’s an apt description I found in the book Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State: “Florida has its own North and South, but its northern area is strictly Southern, and its southern area definitely Northern.”
Rural Florida, mostly in the north, loves Old Folks at Home. Urban Florida, mostly to the south and on the coasts, wants to get rid of it.
For the record, I’ve yet to meet a single African-American, rural or urban, who favors keeping Swanee River. Anyway, since lawmakers apologized for slavery, why not just get rid of the “darkey” ditty?
Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky is a respectful song that embraces the character of the Sunshine State. Here’s a sampling of its lyrics: “Florida, land of flowers, land of light”; “Florida, where our dreams can all take flight”; “mockingbirds cry and ‘gators lie out in the sun.”
We should adopt this song.