Thursday, January 27, 2000

Vess Ossman charted with “The Old Folks at Home” 100 years ago today (1/27/1900)

First posted 1/24/2020.

The Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

Vess Ossman

Writer(s): Stephen Foster (see lyrics here)

First Charted: January 27, 1900

Peak: 2 US (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 20.0 (sheet music)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming



Stephen Foster wrote and published this minstrel song (also known as “Swanee River”) in 1851. E.P. Christy commissioned the song to be used by his troupe, Christy’s Minstrels. Christy was credited as the song’s creator on early sheet music printings, WM so Foster didn’t directly profit much from the song, WK which was the most popular song ever published at that time WM with estimates as high as 20 million. PM

Foster had most of the lyrics writte, but was struggling for a name for the river in the opening line. His brother suggested the Yazoo River in Mississippi and the Pee Dee River in South Carolina before consulting an atlas and coming up with the Suwannee River in Florida. Foster said, “That’s it exactly!” WK He deliberately misspelled it as “Swanee” to fit the melody. WK

Foster’s ballad, written in an exaggerated dialect to capture the language of the black slaves who worked cotton plantations before the Civil War, glorified antebellum Southern life. SS As a result, it sparked Florida tourism in the 1880s from people eager to see the “symbolic river and idyllic home” described by the song. WM Ironically, Foster himself never visited the state. WM In 1935, Florida named it their state song. The lyrics were revised in 2008 to eliminate racially offensive terms. SS

The first charted version of the song came more than forty years after its publication when Len Spencer took it to #1 in 1892. It was one of nine versions to chart between 1892 and 1937. Other versions were by the Haydn Quartet (#4, 1904), Louise Homer (#6, 1905), Alma Gluck (#3, 1915), Taylor Trio (#4, 1916), Oscar Seagle (#8, 1919), Jimmie Lunceford (#19, 1936), and Bunny Berigan (#18, 1937). PM However, the highest ranked in Dave’s Music Database is the banjo instrumental by Vess Ossman. He was considered “The King of the Banjo” and “the foremost recorded ragtime musician of the original ragtime era.” PM

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