Way down upon the Pedee ribber
Far, far away
Dere’s where my heart is turning ebber
Dere’s wha brudders play.
— Stephen Foster, 1851
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — That first line of the first verse of the Stephen Foster classic doesn’t sound quite right. The Pedee?
But that was in the first draft of Old Folks at Home as Foster conversed with his brother Morrison while mulling over the lyrics for his new song.
“One day in 1851, Stephen came into my office, on the bank of the Monongahela, Pittsburgh, and said to me, ‘What is a good name of two syllables for a Southern river. I want to use it in this new song of Old Folks at Home,'” Morrison Foster recalled, according to information available at the Suwannee River State Park, our campsite on Tuesday in the final week of our transcontinental bicycle journey.
“I asked him how Yazoo would do. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that has been used before.’ I then suggested Pedee. ‘Oh, pshaw,’ he replied. ‘I won’t have that.’ I then took down an atlas from the top of my desk and opened the map of the United States. We both looked over it and my finger stopped at the ‘Swannee,’ a little river in Florida emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. ‘That’s it, that’s it exactly,’ exclaimed he, delighted, as he wrote the name down; and the song was finished, commencing, ‘Way Down Upon de Swannee Ribber.’ He left the office, as was his custom, abruptly, without saying another word, and I resumed my work.”
The Suwannee River (Foster misspelled it) flows south from the Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. Foster never visited the river and had no association with it. But the name fit nicely into the lyrics. After he wrote the song, Foster sold it to famed minstrelman E.P. Christy.
been sung by millions the world over and has long since passed out of the realm of written song to be incorporated into the body of folk music passed orally from generation to generation.”
In 1935, the Florida Legislature adopted Old Folks at Home as the official state song, replacing replacing Florida, My Florida, which had been the state song since 1913. In 2008, the legislature decided that a revised version of the lyrics be the official version.
And Foster never even saw the Suwannee — or visited Florida.