This article started as a plea for the replacement of the Star Spangled Banner as the United States national anthem, on the grounds that the lyrics are incomprehensible to most Americans, if, indeed, most people here even know them, unnecessarily bellicose and that the music is impossible for all but the best trained vocalists to sing. As in many of the times one gets involved with background research, it is far too easy to become distracted.
A recent article in the local newspapers announced that Florida’s new Governor, Charlie Crist, had chosen a different song to mark his official introduction into office this month. A spokesman for the Governor said he was concerned “about the song’s racial implications”.
Florida’s official state song, “Old Folks at Home” and also known by its first line, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” was formally adopted by the Florida legislature on May 25, 1935. The lyrics, as originally written and as adopted by Florida, are not easily found on any official web site of the state:
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.
All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.
One little hut amond de bushes,
One dat I love,
Still sadly to my mem’ry rushes,
No matter where I rove
When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home?
Stephen Foster wrote this song in 1851 to be performed by a troupe of “blackface” entertainers known as the Christy’s Minstrels. According to legend, Foster had most of the lyrics in place but was casting about to give a name to the river of the opening line and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was “the Yazoo” of Mississippi, which, despite fitting the melody perfectly, Foster rejected. The second suggestion was “the Pee Dee” of the Carolinas which Foster also rejected. His brother then consulted an atlas and called out “Suwannee!”. Foster immediately wrote it in (misspelling it “Swannee”), saying “That’s it exactly!”. Foster himself never saw the Suwannee or even visited Florida.
Besides the offensive “black-slave” dialect, the expressed nostalgia for being a slave on a plantation and the description of a young slave’s “happy days”, there are issues with the relevance of the song, especially if you live in South Florida and don’t feel connected to a tribute for a river that flows hundreds of miles away, through North Florida.
In 1988 and again in 1977, some legislators made serious efforts to replace the song with something more relevant and far more sensitive to the feelings of many in the state. Both attempts failed and the song remains the official state song of Florida. There are some musings, now that the end of slavery has been finally accepted, albeit with some reluctance, among some of our citizens, that the official state song should be finally changed.
Other states have come to recognize that nineteenth century attitudes will not fly in the twenty-first century.
Virginia’s state song, adopted in 1940, was “Carry Me Back to Old ‘Virginny'” [sic], with the name of the Commonwealth being updated to “Virginia”. The song was written in 1880 and expressed the feelings that many white people wished their freed slaves would feel, nostalgia for the days of slavery. Thus, the song’s lyrics, written in a black dialect style popular in that time, contain:
Carry me back to old Virginny.
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.
There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa,
Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.
The Commonwealth of Virginia recognized, with some opposition, that the song was, in current times at least, inappropriate and, in 1997, “retired” the song and declared it “State Song Emeritus”.
In many ways, Maryland’s official song, adopted in 1939, is offensive but in a different way. It begins with the phrase, “The despot’s heel is on thy shore” referring to Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln is also referred to as a “tyrant” At the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln had ordered federal troops brought to Washington to project the capital. Some of these troops passed through Baltimore, a major transportation hub. Confederate sympathizers engaged in several major riots in 1861 during which several people were killed, among whom was a friend of James Randall. Moved by his friend’s death, he wrote a poem pleading for Maryland to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. This is the part of its history that Maryland wants to remember with pride!
As I noted at the start of this article, I had been preparing an analysis of why the Star Spangled Banner should be replaced. After sitting at many sports events when the Anthem’s last line appears to be, “O’er the land of the free and the [roar of crowd and much cheering]”, I am more convinced then ever that a change should be made. But more of this next time.