“Old Folks at Home”
After supper, when night and lamplight came, Pa took his fiddle out of the box and tuned it lovingly. – …He played and sang ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Swanee River’… — On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 30, “Going to Town”
Old Folks at Home (also known as “Swanee River” or “Suwanne River” but written as “Suanne River” by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Pioneer Girl manuscript) was written by Stephen Foster in 1851. In his manuscript book, the song was written under the heading “Way down upon de old plantation,” and the song began “Way down upon the Pedee River.” In a second draft, “Pedee” was crossed out and “Swanee” written above it. According to Stephen Foster’s brother Morrison, the river name was decided upon after the two of them consulted an atlas in search of “a good name for a Southern river with two syllables.” Foster never visited Florida nor saw the river immortalized in his song. It brought tourists to Florida, and “Old Folks at Home” became the State Song of Florida in 1935.
“Old Folks at Home” has proved to be one of the world’s most famous songs. It was copyrighted by Firth, Pond, & Company. At about the same time it was copyrighted, Foster was asked by E.P. Christy to write a song which the Christy Minstrels could sing prior to publication. Foster agreed that Christy could have exclusive rights to “Old Folks at Home” for the sum of $500 (whether Christy paid that amount is open to debate, as only $15 is known to have been paid for the right to sing the song before it was published). For twenty-five years, the song was published with Edwin Christy – not Stephen Foster – listed as writer and composer. It wasn’t until the after Foster’s death and the original copyright had expired that Foster’s name appeared on the music.
The Christy Minstrels took the song to England shortly after publication, and it became as popular there as in America, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Other composers were quick to capitalize on its popularity, releasing numerous similar tunes, among them “Old Folks are Gone” and “Young Folks at Home.” Foster’s original simply told that no matter how far a person may travel or what sadness they experience, everyone fondly remembers the best things about their childhood home and experiences there: the love and security of family, themes most prevalent in all of Wilder’s Little House books.
Stephen Foster Collins (1826-1864) was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh. A musically gifted child, Stephen was educated in the private schools of Pennsylvania and worked as a bookkeeper for a steamship company in Cincinnati as a young adult. It was during this period that Foster made arrangements with several publishers to be paid royalties on future songs, usually 2 cents per copy. Foster married in 1850 and the couple had one child, a daughter.
In today’s music business, Foster would have earned millions from performances and sale of his music, but in the 1850s and 60s, it was a hard way to earn a living. Following an accident in New York in January 1864, Stephen Foster died with only thirty-eight cents in his pocket. His music lives on, in over two hundred songs and instrumentals from a twenty-year period.
Stephen Foster songs mentioned in the Little House books include: “Oh! Susanna,” “Uncle Ned,” “Nelly Was a Lady,” “Oh Boys, Carry Me Along,” “De Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.”
1. Way down upon de Swanee ribber
Far, far away
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber
Dere’s whe de old folks stay.
[chorus] All de world am sad and dreary
Ebry where I roam
Oh! darkeys how my heart grows weary
Far from de old folks at home.
2. Al up and down de whole creation
Sadly, I roam
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.
3. All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young
Den many happy days I squandered
Many de songs I sung.
4. When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy-Joyous was I
Oh take me to my kind old mudder
Dere let me lib and die.
5. One little hut among de bushes
All dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes
No matter where I rove.
6. When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home
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Click on the above images to view a copy of original sheet music of “Old Folks at Home.” This shows the music attributed to E.P. Christy, published by Firth, Pond, & Company.
This music is archived in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0185 USA.. The Historic American Sheet Music Program provides access to music published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.
“Old Folks at Home” (BPC 30)
Swanee River (BPC 30)
Suanne River (PG)