Thursday, January 27, 2000

100 years ago: Vess Ossman charted with “The Old Folks at Home”

The Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

Len Spencer

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

First Charted: August 13, 1892

Peak: 16 US (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 20.0 (sheet music)

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

The Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

Vess Ossman

First Charted: January 27, 1900

Peak: 2 US, 17 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 20.0 (sheet music)

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

Awards (Spencer):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Ossman):

Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Stephen Foster was the pre-eminent songwriter of the 19th century in America. The Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee was born in 1826 and published hs first song in 1842. He had his first hit with “Oh! Susanna” in 1848 and “Camptown Races” in 1850. SS His “greatest triumph” was with “The Old Folks at Home,” also known as “Swanee River,” in 1851.

Ed P. Christy commissioned the minstrel song to be used by his troupe, Christy’s Minstrels. Christy was credited as the song’s creator on early sheet music printings WM because of a contractual agreement between him and Foster due to the latter’s concer that “an association with minstrel songs might damage his broader ambitions.” SS It meant Foster wasn’t credited (although he received royalties without recognition SS) from what became the most popular song ever published at that time WM with estimates as high as 20 million. PM Foster wouldn’t be credited until the copyright ran out in 1879, at which time he’d been dead sixteen years. SS

The melody was likely borrowed from “Annie Laurie” by Lady John Scott, a ballad published in Sir Thomas Moore’s classic Irish Melodies collection. SS Foster wrote most of the lyrics before settling in on the right 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

“For the first time, the two distinct categories of songs he had previously written, gentell parlor ballads and blackface-dialect numbers, merged into one.” SS The latter style involved writing in an exaggerated dialect to capture the language of the black slaves who worked cotton plantations before the Civil War, glorified antebellum Southern life. SFS “Swanee River” ended up sparking 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. SFS

It should be noted, though, that at the time Foster wrote the song, he was unusually sympathetic in his portrayal of a displaced slave, singing of loneliness and longing. He wrote the song about the slave’s feelings of isolation with enough vagueness that spoke to a wider, white audience. 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


First posted 1/24/2020; last updated 4/5/2023.

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