History Outliving Its Welcome

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OPEN UNIVERSITY JANUARY 30, 2007

History Outliving Its Welcome

by Darrin McMahon
Back when Open University was first getting off the ground, David Bell posted a provocative piece on the official state song of Maryland. That embarrassing relic of the Civil War, he pointed out, set to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," refers to Lincoln as a "tyrant" and a "despot," while jauntily describing the citizens of the Union as "northern scum." In calling for this atavism to be expunged, Bell asked his fellow Open-U Bloggers to draw attention to other such cases where history has outlived its welcome.

Better late than never, here are a couple of lines from my newly adopted state of Florida's official anthem, "Old Folks at Home," written by Stephen C. Foster in 1851. Better known as "Swanee River," the tune pines in the voice of an African American for "de old plantation," while calling out to all "darkeys" to share in the elegiac longing of its chorus:

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!

Made famous by the minstrel singer and promoter E. P. Christy, "Old Folks at Home" was only adopted as the official state song in 1935, supplanting the innocuous "Florida, My Florida," which had served well enough in that capacity since 1913. Considering that Foster himself never even visited Florida, nor walked the banks of the state's Suwannee river, which he misspelled in the song, it would seem all the more fitting to throw this piece of reactionary kitsch back into the waters of time.

Fortunately, good folks in Florida have been seeking to do just that. The Democratic state senator Rick Dantzler worked in the 1990s to have the song replaced, and newspaper columnists steadily urge the state to hum to a different tune. More recently citizens have started a petition drive, which on the eve of Black History month, you might care to sign here.

Clearly, the song is an embarrassment. When newly elected Republican governor, Charlie Crist, was inaugurated this month, he commendably broke with tradition and cut the song from the proceedings altogether. And a state web page devoted to teaching Florida's history to children conveniently doctors the offending words. In place of "Oh, darkeys, my heart grows weary," you will find, "Oh, brothers, my heart grows weary." Rather than re-write history or ignore it, it is time to overcome it, and then let the band play on.

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