Updated 4 yearss ago
Executive Editor [Photo: Dan Gaye]
“O, Christmas Tree.”
In his 37 years of life, Stephen Foster, the author of “Old Folks,” never visited Florida and so never saw the Suwannee. According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music, Foster composed the first draft in Pennsylvania, his home state, not about the Suwannee at all, but rather about the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. When Foster altered the song’s locus, he had to lop a syllable off “Suwannee” so it would fit the tune’s meter. He supposedly found the name in an atlas.
Foster was a professional tunesmith who wrote in the commercial context of his time. That included writing songs for the minstrel shows of his day, in which white actors performed songs and skits in blackface makeup. Foster wrote “Old Folks” in 1851 for E.P. Christy’s minstrel show. While the shows themselves frequently lampooned African-Americans in egregiously racist ways, many of Foster’s songs were notable for portraying African-Americans sympathetically. One Foster song, “Nellie Was a Lady,” was “apparently the first song written by a white composer for the white audience of the minstrel shows that portrays a black man and woman as loving husband and wife and insists on calling the woman a ‘lady,’ which was a term reserved for well-born white women,” according to the Pittsburgh center. Another Foster work portrays a slave fleeing the plantation.
In its day, “Old Folks” was a hit, successful both in the U.S. and internationally. For the first 100 years of its life, the song was perceived by audiences primarily as a general expression of longing for the security of home, family and place, or as a folk song in the same vein as a spiritual.
Those are historical facts, however — not reasons to keep it as Florida’s official tune. Since the Civil Rights era, of course, the prevailing view of the song focuses appropriately on its use of dialect and the central, offensive image of a black man longing for “the old plantation.” There have been efforts to politically correct the lyrics. When the song was played at the dedication of the state Capitol in 1978, the word “darkeys” in the original was replaced with “brothers.” Elsewhere, various editors cleaned up the song’s original dialect — “All de world am sad and dreary, Eb-rywhere I roam.”
Pasting wings on a fish doesn’t make it a bird, however, and there’s only so much that creative editing can do with the song’s 1850s mindset. The fact that it’s lasted as long as it has probably says more about how much attention Floridians pay to their state song than the song itself.
Which brings us nearly to the present.
Last year, two legislators, Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, and Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, decided a little housecleaning was in order and began a process to find a new state song.
Terrific. Times change, and if the state needs an official song, it’s appropriate to have one that reflects modern sensibilities — at least without waltzing over the line into Margaritaville.
Ah, government. Predictably, the Homan-Hill effort produced a committee, which solicited songs from the public and selected three finalists, one of which the Legislature may designate as Florida’s new state song.
The three finalist-songs are all earnest, heartfelt and — at the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell — they are dreadful. They reflect what usually happens when non-professionals write songs: Bad tune, say hello to overwrought lyrics. And they reflect what happens when anyone sets out to write an official state song rather than a good song — you end up with something that’s, well, sad and dreary. The three songs’ melodies and meter are formal, ponderous, strained. The tunes are completely uncatchy — you could listen to them 100 times and never walk away humming one to yourself.
Meanwhile, the authors labor mightily to incorporate everything Florida into their lyrics, jamming in sawgrass, sunshine, blue skies, the “sapphire sea,” forests, lakes, “quaint and tropic islands,” mockingbirds, gators, bridges, ancient natives, new immigrants, rockets and, of course, orange blossoms. (Nary a condo, however.) If you could eat these songs, you’d get a cavity.
I’m not sure why Homan and Hill felt we needed to generate an entirely new song. As a friend observed, when the state picked an official bird and tree, it chose from among existing species rather than going out and inventing new ones. A quick review of 48 other state songs (New Jersey doesn’t have one) supports the contention that the only memorable “official” tunes are commercially successful songs that states adopted rather than created: Think “Georgia on My Mind” and “Oklahoma” and “Rocky Top” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Connecticut’s official song. Note that “Yankee Doodle” doesn’t mention Connecticut and that “Rocky Top,” one of five official state songs in Tennessee, concerns the illegal manufacture of whiskey and the implied murder of two law enforcement officers.
At any rate, there’s no shortage of existing Florida-related songs. We’re probably not ready for “Backyard Party” by the Florida Boyz or Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Jacksonville Kid.” “Orange Blossom Special” is catchy but basically an instrumental. The late Bobby Hicks, a Florida folksinger, wrote a decent tune called “I’m Florida, Need I Say More” that’s edgy and solid.
One interesting choice would be “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by a Floridian, James Weldon Johnson, who was a good songwriter as well as a high school principal, a newspaper founder and the first African-American to pass the Bar exam in Florida. He didn’t write it precisely with Florida in mind, but it has a strong melody, and the chorus seems appropriate both to Florida and to choices that involve reconciling the past with the future:
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”
It might even inspire the Legislature to deal with something serious.