🎶 🎹 Way down upon the Suwannee River, far far away 🎹 There’s where my heart is turning ever, there’s where the old folks stay 🎶. I grew up learning Stephen Foster songs and remember playing a few of them on the piano. Foster was a famous American composer who lived from 1826 – 1864. In his short life time, he wrote the music and words to over 200 songs including “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Old Folks at Home,” which is also known as “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.”
The Suwannee River is located at this state park which pays tribute to Stephen Foster and one of his most famous songs. One would think that a Florida state park dedicated to him would mean that Foster was a Florida native, resident or had been a regular visitor, but in traveling we have find out some things are not what they seem. Foster never visited Florida or even saw the Suwannee River. So the question is, why would he use it in a song?
Stephen Foster was born and lived outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Since many of his songs had southern themes, I assumed that he was from the South, yet he never lived there. One day in 1851 while writing “Old Folks at Home,” he went to the office of his older brother named Morrison who worked at a cotton mill in Pittsburg. He asked him if he knew a good two syllable river name in the South that would fit in his song. His brother suggested two which Stephen rejected and they got down an atlas to look for another one. Morrison’s finger fell on the Suwannee River in Florida and Stephen knew he had found the right one. He changed the spelling to “Swanee” to better fit the verse. This once obscure river was soon to become famous around the world.
In 1935, the Florida legislature designated “Old Folks at Home” the official state song. Due to concerns that the song romanticized slavery, some of the words were altered before it was adopted. In 1950 this state park was created to honor not only Stephen Foster, but also to promote folk culture. In 1953, the Florida Folk Festival was first held here and has continued each year on Memorial Day weekends with music and crafts. The park reports it is the longest running state folk festival in the nation.
During our visit to Florida in February 2018, one of my favorite places to explore were the state parks. We visited a number of them located on the Gulf of Mexico, but this was the only one we visited in the far northern part of the state away from the Gulf. When I found out about this park and that it was “sort of” on our way to St. Augustine, I knew I wanted to visit and learn more about Stephen Foster. The park has exhibits and artifacts in a museum housed in a beautiful building with antebellum architecture built in 1948.
Inside, one of the major displays we found was made up of dioramas with scenes, moving figures and music inspired by Foster’s songs. Lots of work and painstaking detail went into them with 14 artists spending nearly two years creating the first eight. One person worked full time for nearly eight years. Everything was handmade especially for the diorama – for example the piano in “Jeanie” was hard carved from solid black walnut. The first rows of cotton in “Way Down” have hand formed stems, leaves and cotton bolls attached.
One of the most beautiful parts of the museum were the two large decorated rooms with rare and historic pianos. There is even a piano that Stephen Foster once played donated to the state park by a great-granddaughter.
Another piece of Foster furniture can also be found here. His niece, daughter of Stephen’s brother Morrison wrote a letter regarding how the song came about and the importance of the desk to the family: “This desk was always in our home and I can attest that on many occasions I have heard my father caution me and my brother never to let anything happen to this old desk for it was the one on which your uncle Stephen wrote the song Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.”
During his musical career, Stephen partnered with Christy’s Minstrels, a musical troupe who performed his songs. He sold the rights of his “Old Folks at Home” song to Christy for $15.00 and it became very successful and popular. Foster never received any credit for writing it until after his death. He was only 37 years old when he passed away from complications after a fall in New York City. When he died on January 13, 1864, he was almost penniless with a mere 38 cents found in his pocket.
Located in the park is a 97 bell carillon in a 200 foot tower that plays Stephen Foster songs throughout the day. It is considered the world’s largest tubular bell carillon. Well, songs usually play but unfortunately when we visited, the tower was needing renovation and all was silent 😔. Inside the building we did find other music to listen to. A park volunteer gave us our own private concert playing the dulcimer as well as the piano. Other exhibits regarding the carillon and Foster can be found here.
Since the park also supports folk art and culture, there is an area of small buildings devoted to artisans, called the “Craft Square.” We visited a few of them although some were closed up for the day.
We ended our day with an evening jam session held in a community room. This Friday night bluegrass jam was open to anyone who wanted to bring their instrument or just listen, which is what we did. Mark and I have always enjoyed these jam sessions during our travels and this one was enjoyable as well.
I think that is it for catching up on our Florida travels from two years ago. Until next time!