Christopher M. Cevasco, Author

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“Way Down Upon the Pee Dee River…”

Swanee River Postcard, 1904Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? But actually, the Pee Dee River of North and South Carolina was the river that composer Stephen Foster, the “father of American music,” originally considered using in his 1851 lyrics to “Old Folks At Home.” He apparently also considered using the Yazoo River of Mississippi. Eventually he settled upon the Suwanee River of southern Georgia and northern Florida, although he misspelled it “Swanee” and that misspelling persisted. What’s unclear is whether the misspelling was simply a mistake by Foster or part of the coarse mimicry of mid-19th century African American Vernacular English that permeates the song (as racist as the song’s very subject matter–a roaming African man longing for the idyllic life he once had back on the plantation). Although originally composed to be performed by a New York-based blackface minstrel troupe, “Old Folks At Home” became the official state song of Florida in 1935 and remains so to this day (an alternate state “anthem” was also officially adopted in 2008).

As for the river itself, the Suwanee traces the site of the prehistoric Suwanee Straits which once separated the Florida peninsula from the panhandle. The area around the river has been inhabited for thousands of years. Displacing earlier Late Woodland period indigenous cultures, the river environs came to be inhabited by two related Timucua tribes by the 16th century: the Yustaga on the west side and the Northern Utina on the east. It’s been theorized that the river’s name derives from a Timucuan word, Suwani, meaning “Echo River, River of Reeds, Deep Water, or Crooked Black Water,” but alternate etymologies have also been put forth. Later, in the 18th century, Seminoles took up residence near the river. Perhaps some day, some of you reading this blog might retire to that part of Florida, helping to build a whole new generation of old folks at home…

 

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