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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

April 1, 2011

Song of the Week: Swanee River

The Pax Plena Song of the Week will doubtless be a familiar one in the great American songbook. Written by composer Stephen C. Coster in 1851, (Old Folks at Home) or Swanee River has long been a staple of American music.

Though the melody itself has been criticized for its supposedly racist undertones, the lyrics actually tell the story of world traveller long displaced from his home. Such a tale would be fairly innocuous, but for the African-American vernacular incorporated into the lyrics, and the use of the word "darkie," presumably in reference to other Blacks in the chorus. As an example of Foster's use of the African-American vernacular, in the original score, Foster used the words "ribber," "ebber," and "mudder," to refer to the words river, ever, and mother respectively. While the move is decidedly politically incorrect, there really isn't anything inherently racist, or even offensive about the song. In fact, even the use of the word 'darkie' can arguably be interpreted as an paean to inclusiveness - particularly when Foster could have used much more loaded "N-word." As the platitude goes, context is crucial.

Controversy aside, what makes the song interesting is the soaring story the lyrics tell through Foster's music. The song follows the plight of a wanderer who has travelled far away from home, only to realize that the grass isn't necessarily greener elsewhere. As the music swells, the bard yearns for home, and the old folks, and brighter days past.

In truth, I suppose I hear some of my own thoughts when I listen to the piece. In many ways, having been removed from Cotton County, Oklahoma nearly ten years come September, I too feel a bit as if I have been 'up and down the whole creation' sadly roaming, longing for home all the while. What Foster manages to do is capture these sentiments in pithy language, setting them against one of the most emotional scores in music history.

And really that's what makes a musical selection great: the best renditions take our unspoken thoughts and put them to a melody that captures our feelings at a particular moment in time. Listening to the song, one can nigh feel tears welling up from the deep within as the singer longs for sunny days spent with siblings, and with a mother that departed this life long ago. Though the lyrics are the vehicle for delivery, the emotional punch is packed through foster's arrangement.

With that, please enjoy, the Pax Plena Song of the Week, Swanee River. Lyrics and music appear below, and a series of performances of the piece follow.

8 Old Folks at Home

Bing Crosby is always the gold standard for any musical performance. Naturally, his rendition of Swanee River from the Kraft Music Hall Shows of the 1930s and 40s is stellar.

Aside from Crosby, the first notable performance of the song is actually an improvisational piece called the "Swanee River Boogie" performed by Albert Ammons. Ammons's fingers tickle the ivories in a way that only a jazz musician can.

A second performance of the song is performed by Luca Sestak, a German teenager, and a certifiable, piano prodigy. Sestak's performance is enough to make yours truly wish I were good at something - viz., anything.

One final, notable performance of Swanee River comes from the Alvin and the Chipmunks Show from the 1980s and 1990s. The trio perform a riff on the old minstrel performances of the 1850s, with Dave Seville playing the straight-laced interlocutor, and the Chipmunks playing a tripartite amalgam of Tambo and Bones.

This isn't to say the clip is politically correct - in fact, it's almost difficult to fathom any cartoon today producing similar programming - but the jokes are wonderfully terrible.

For example:

Dave: Good evening, Gentlemen. How are you feeling this evening?

Alvin: How am I feeling, Mr. Interlocutor?

Dave: That's right, Alvin, how are you feeling?

Alvin: With my fingers, Mr. Interlocutor.

Chipmunks: Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck.

 

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