White Springs, FL

Way Down Upon the Swanee River

The Stephen Foster Museum in White Springs, Florida

The Stephen Foster museum in White Springs, Florida. Foster, a Northerner, never visited Florida, but nevertheless had his tune “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” adopted as the state song.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

IF SONGWRITER Stephen Foster had had his way, an obscure river in northern Florida would have remained unknown to all but those who lived on its banks. Instead, an intervention by his brother made it world famous. That song is “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.”

You learn a lot about Foster as you tour the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park here in White Springs, some 30 kilometres south of the Georgia state line. It lies on the banks of the Suwannee River. (Foster altered the spelling, as we shall see.)

The centrepiece of the 100-hectare park is a museum devoted to the supremely talented, but tragic, songwriter, who penned some of the most delightful ballads of the 19th century. The building is a southern plantation–style house, fronted by giant white columns—an obvious icon, it would seem, in memorializing someone whose songs frequently reflected Deep South aspirations. It’s ironic, then, that, as museum markers point out, the Pittsburgh-born balladeer almost never left the north and certainly never set foot in Florida, never saw the Suwannee.

Among the items on display in the museum are dioramas portraying scenes from Foster songs and a piano that he used to play. In one room stands a drop-front writing desk with an important part in the Stephen Foster story. The desk had been in his brother Morrison’s home in Pittsburgh. One day in 1851 Stephen sat down at it to pen a ballad about happy slaves in a southern plantation. It began: “Way Down Upon de Peedee Ribber,” (Foster tried to emulate the slave dialect, though later the songs were edited to avoid offence). The Peedee, which runs in North and South Carolina, was the only southern river of two syllables that he knew. But Morrison objected. “You need something more mellifluous,” he said. So the brothers spread an atlas on the desk, briefly considered the Yazoo River in Mississippi, and then found the Suwannee in Florida. It was three syllables, but Stephen’s artistic license took care of that problem.

In 1935 Florida adopted the song (also known as “The Old Folks at Home”) as the official state song. Seven years earlier Kentucky had chosen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as its anthem. He’s the only songwriter to have penned two state songs. (And he never visited Kentucky, either!)

In all, Foster wrote more than 200 songs, which were tremendously popular on the 19th-century minstrel circuit. Barbershop quartets still sing “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Oh, Susannah,” and others. He was a bad businessman, however, and he died penniless and an alcoholic at the age of 37, in 1864.

Near the museum stands a 97-bell carillon atop a 60-metre tower, playing a program of Foster tunes. A short distance away is Craft Square, where artisans—blacksmiths, wood carvers, weavers—show off their skills. And then everyone walks down to the banks of the Suwannee, framed by cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss. You can almost hear the banjo strumming.



For more information on the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park visit www.floridastateparks.org/park/stephen-foster.

For information on travel in Florida visit the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation website at www.visitflorida.com.