He never even saw the Suwannee

Stephen Foster

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.

Dining in the dark at Suwannee River State Park

Over the past century and a half, the song “has been been translated into every European language and into many Asian and African tongues,” says the info from the state park. “It has
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.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys

6 responses to “He never even saw the Suwannee

  1. Jill Oren, Indiana

    I ride our Cardinal Greenway in Indiana. I was looking at images of bicycles on google one day and stumbled across your blog . It was your very first day of this trip! I read your post every morning over coffee. I truly thank you for taking me along. I’m excited for you and sad at the same time because I will miss these posts. Congratulations! You did it!!!

  2. Erik

    Good luck on your last day!
    Two questions:
    1) Any new local beers to recommend?
    2) Why is there a teeny smiley face in the top RH corner of your blog?

  3. Kathy Murphy

    I know this is the big day. I’m just so amazed by you and your bike comrades. Congratulations on what has to be one of the biggest accomplishments of your life. And the rest of your life isn’t too shabby. So you are amazing and I’ve enjoyed every word on your blog. Happy trails back to Texas. Have a great Tday with family.
    Kathy Murphy

  4. Congrats from the McReynolds’ (Chino too)
    We are all wondering when you will ever feel inclined to rejoin our little mini-rides. Hope to see you around the ‘hood soon

  5. flashriversafari

    Congrats, Jim — Just heard from Ben that you’ve made it safe and sound — Just great!

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