Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon Swanee River)

One of my all-time favorite boogie-woogie piano songs is Swanee River Boogie performed by Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings. Ammons plays a steady and repeating boogie baseline with the left hand, accompanied by the adaptation of the melody from Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River) with the right hand.

Swanee River Boogie – Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings

Old Folks at Home was written by the American composer Stephen Collins Foster in 1851. The first publications of the work would credit Edwin P. Christy, who commissioned the work, but this was later corrected and Foster received full credit for his song.

Stephen Collins Foster, who was uneducated in music, learned to write music as a young boy using the singing of his sisters as the main source of creativity. The phrase ‘Swanee River‘ was added to the song out of a lack of inspiration. Foster wanted to name a river in his lyrics, and it was his brother who suggested the Suwannee River, a river that runs through south Georgia into Florida. To fit in the melody and dialect of the song, he used Swanee River instead. It’s interesting to know that Stephen Foster was born in Pennsylvania and he never set foot in Georgia or Florida, hence he never saw the Suwannee River.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink – Old Folks at Home recording from 1918

In 1935, the composition would become the official state song of Florida. However, the original lyrics were altered. The lyrics were written in an African American dialect and would contain references to slavery and plantations. The dialect was modified into “dictionary-English” and the song was renamed after the river’s official name, Suwannee river. Also, words such as “plantations” were removed to eliminate any reference to plantation work.

Part of the original lyrics versus the 2008 revision

Over time, many great versions of the song were recorded. The song survived all decades and was re-shaped each time a new genre emerged. The title would often be adjusted to have a better fit into the new genre it’s being played in (Swanee River boogie, Swanee River Hop, Swanee River Rock, etc.).

In the early years of the 20th century, the song was incorporated into the foxtrot, ragtime, and Dixieland scene of the south. Pianist Fletcher Henderson recorded his version called Swanee River Blues. The song is not played like a classic blues song but more in a march-like Dixieland rhythm.

The song gained a lot of popularity during the 1930s thanks to the swing era. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra recorded a popular big band version. Remarkable was the Swanee river-melody is no longer exclusively played on the piano but different instruments were used. Also, Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (although he is a Belgian musician) recorded his version on the guitar, he’s supported on the violin by Stéphane Grappelli.

Belgian jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt and le Quintette du Hot Club de France

Albert Ammons recorded his boogie-woogie piano version in 1946 together with His Rhythm Kings. He named the song Swanee River Boogie. The song was released at the peak of the genre. The success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. A concert that brought together the many forms of African American music that were developed over time, including boogie-woogie.

Boogie-woogie and blues music further evolved into jump-blues, rock-and-roll, and rhythm-and-blues and these genres would keep on covering Swanee River. Fats Domino released his version called Swanee River Hop, this version sounds a lot like Ammons’ boogie-woogie version. Even the legendary Ray Charles played the song and named it Swanee River Rock.

Even today musicians play their own interpretation of the song. Hugh Laurie released a very interesting modern version of the song in 2011. You can find it on the album Let Them Talk. Although the piano and vocal intro by Hugh Laurie gives you a boogie-woogie feel, the band is bringing an extra layer to the performance, the song now also has aspects of folk music and gypsy jazz.

Hugh Laurie’s performance of Swanee River in New Orleans