Al Jolson with Charles Prince’s Orchestra
Writer(s): Irving Caesar/George Gershwin (see lyrics here)
First Charted: May 8, 1920
Peak: 19 US, 11 GA (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): 4.0 (includes 1.0 in sheet music)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 0.75 video, -- streaming
Awards: (Click on award for more details).
About the Song:
George Gershwin may be America’s greatest songwriter. He began his music career making piano rolls of other composers’ works, giving him valuable insight into the makings of a hit song. LW By 1919, he had already written two Broadway revues, one of which included the song “Swanee.” LW It became his first major hit and his best-selling song in terms of both sheet music and record sales. JA
It was also the first major hit for co-writer Irving Caesar, who later wrote “Tea for Two.” Caesar worked first as a Ford Motor Company mechanic and met Gershwin in a New York restaurant. By the time they took the bus back to Gershwin’s house, Caesar had completed the lyrics and, according to legend, Gershwin had the music down 15 minutes later. LW
However, when introduced in New York City’s Demi-Tasse Revue, the number got lost amidst the lush staging. RCG It didn’t become a million seller until Caesar persuaded his friend Al Jolson to use it in his Broadway show Sinbad; LW he subsequently recorded it in January 1920. WK That year, the All-Star Trio and Peerless Quartet each got to #11 with their versions of the song. The 1954 movie A Star Is Born also featured a memorable performance of the song by Judy Garland.
However, the song is primarily attributed to Jolson NRR and specifically his performance of it in blackface. The practice of white men donning black face paint is horrifically racist in hindsight, but was popular entertainment in the minstrel shows of the day. Lyrically, “the racism remains embedded in every word, practically in every note” DS of the song.
The song parodies Stephen Foster’s 1851 song “Old Folks at Home,” WK also known as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” Caesar even incorporated the line “I love the old folks at home” in “Swanee.” RCG “Old Folks” had mythologized the Suwanee River (which Foster misspelled as “Swanee”) in southern Georgia as a symbol of nostalgia for emancipated slaves. DS It came to represent freedom not just for blacks, but for immigrants. On a larger scale, “the larger-than-life, tirelessly productive image America had of itself following the First World War” DS was well represented by Jolson, “the undisputed king of popular culture.” DS
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First posted 11/9/2011; last updated 4/22/2021.