Editorial: Florida needs to sing a new song
Mar 15, 2007
By JAMES A. SMITH SR.

I'm pretty sure I've never been accused of being politically correct or an advocate of multiculturalism. That may change with this editorial.

It's long past time for Florida to have an official state song that can be sung and embraced by all its citizens. Today, that's not the case.

"Old Folks At Home," written by Stephen Foster in 1851 and adopted by the Legislature in 1935 as the official state song, is better known as "Swanee River" and is written from the standpoint of a slave pining for the good old days on the plantation.

Here's the first verse and chorus, with the officially adopted lyrics, unsanitized from its "negro dialect":

Way down upon de Swanee ribber,

Far, far away,

Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,

Dere's wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation,

Sadly I roam,

Still longing for de old plantation,

And for de old folks at home

All de world am sad and dreary

Ebry where I roam,

Oh! darkeys how my heart grows weary,

Far from de old folks at home.

To his credit and breaking from long tradition, Gov. Charlie Crist declined to have "Old Folks At Home" sung at his inauguration in January. "There are lyrics in it that are, in the opinion of some, a derogatory reference to some time in our historical past that involves slavery. I can't condone it," Crist said, according to The St. Petersburg Times.

Florida state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, told The Florida Times-Union, "The song is not appropriate. It should not be identified with the 18 million people living in the state today. When you have a governor that's being sworn in but a state song that's not being played, there's a problem."

Hill told The Gainesville Sun, "I don't want to have to explain to my grandkids what that means. Because I'm not a 'darkey,' I'm a person." Hill, who is African American, wants to have a statewide contest to find an alternative state song.

There are a number of ironies related to "Old Folks At Home" as Florida's state song:

• One of America's most prolific lyricists known for songs like "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Oh! Susanna," Foster was a native Pennsylvanian who never visited Florida;

•Foster chose the "Swanee" River—which he misspelled—only because it fit the lyrical rhythm of the song. An earlier version used the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.

• The song isn't really about Florida, but about plantation life in the south in general;

"Old Folks At Home" was only relatively recently adopted as the state song in 1935, replacing, "Florida, My Florida," which was written in 1894 by Rev. C.V. Waugh, a professor of languages at Florida Agricultural College in Lake City, and adopted as the state song in 1913.

Although "Old Folks At Home" was originally written for a minstrel show, some scholars argue the song should not be seen as racist.

Kathryn Miller Haines, associate director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, which has a memorial to Foster, told The Tampa Tribune the song gives refined, human emotions to slaves, contrary to the common assumptions of the day.

Commenting on the racial aspects of "Old Folks At Home," Foster biographer Ken Emerson told the Tribune, "The racial complexity and ambiguity is tremendous. But it's part of American history. American history is awkward and embarrassing and complex. It has racist aspects to it, and so does American history."

As far as Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is concerned, it's wrong to "expunge our past." Baxley told The Florida Times-Union, "I don't pretend that the past was all beautiful and wonderful. I'm sure it was painful for some people, but we're in a multicultural area and everyone's culture is celebrated but mine."

Baxley's great-great-great grandfather died in the Civil War fighting for the Confederacy.

"I am really bucking the tide on this whole thing of expunging Southern history from Florida. Our roots are Deep South. The state song is about slaves working. They built Florida's economy," Baxley told The Gainesville Sun.

Baxley also told The Sun, "I repent for the sins of my ancestors and for my own." He has supported efforts to put Martin Luther King Jr.'s image on state license plates and have a road renamed in honor of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. He also is sponsor of legislation to permit a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag with proceeds going to Sons of Confederate Veterans, of which he is a member.

Like many legislators, Sen. Hill speaks highly of Baxley. "I think he's a Christian guy. He wants to do the right things," Hill told The Sun.

In fact, Baxley is a fantastic legislator—one of the pro-family movement's best friends in the Capitol, and more importantly, a model Christian public servant. He has often been quoted in the Witness, and we have profiled him, "Rep. Dennis Baxley: Man on a mission" (May 10, 2001).

I certainly do not want to suggest even in the slightest way that Rep. Baxley is not racially sensitive; his record is clear. But on this issue, I must disagree with my friend.

I don't understand his argument to retain "Old Folks At Home" as the official state song when the most generous interpretation of the song is that it is racially complex.

"When you want a state song, you don't want to hear a 10-minute lecture from a history professor or a musicologist. You just want to sing the thing," Steven Saunders told The Tampa Tribune. Saunders is the editor of the "definitive edition" of Foster's works.

I agree that we should not "expunge" our history, but that doesn't mean that we have to celebrate it.

In some ways, I'm really in no position to have an opinion about this matter. After all, I've only lived in Florida six years, although my mother-in-law's family has a long history in the Sunshine State. However, as a new Floridian, I think I probably represent the views of the vast numbers of citizens who have come to this state in recent years and who find discomfiting a song celebrating slavery—and even more disconcerting to know that it's the official state song!

Is changing the state song the most pressing matter legislators must face this legislative session in Tallahassee? Clearly, no, finding a new song should not be the first priority.

Still, finding an alternative state song that celebrates Florida's history, culture and geography which does not cause any of its citizens to feel excluded is also not trivial.

The official state song is an important symbol our Legislature should give its most serious attention. It's long past time for Florida to sing a new song.

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