Saturday, February 17, 2018
Human Interest

Jan Hinton's new Florida anthem is a song from her heart

FORT LAUDERDALE — Florida lurked just outside of Jan Hinton's classroom the other day. The sun shined down, palm trees swayed, pelicans flapped toward the Atlantic Ocean. She would have written a song about picture-perfect Florida, had she not already written a song about picture-perfect Florida.

Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky) is her paean to her adopted home. Last month lawmakers declared her song the official state anthem. The governor is expected to give his thumbs-up soon.

Hinton, born in the years between Buddy Holly and the Beatles, is an obsessive songwriter who teaches elementary music appreciation at Pinecrest School in Broward County. At home she noodles nervously on her old Yamaha PSR5700 keyboard until she comes up with something.

When the state advertised a contest last year for a new Florida song, Hinton headed for the bedroom she calls a music studio.

She wanted to account for the water and the reptiles, the orange blossoms and rockets. She wanted to acknowledge the importance of tourism but couldn't think of a graceful way to declare "the importance of tourism.'' Instead she wrote, "Always shielding your own, yet giving welcome.''

• • •

Jeb Bush refused to allow the performance of the official state song, Old Folks at Home, at his two inaugurations. Charlie Crist ignored Old Folks, also known as Way Down Upon the Swanee River, when he took the oath. They found fault with Stephen Foster's 19th century lyrics about "darkies.'' The governors were unwilling to stand accused of promoting minstrel-show music in the ultimate melting-pot state.

Anyway, as they could tell you, Foster wasn't even a Floridian. He even misspelled Suwannee. But he liked the sound of all those vowels.

Jan Hinton, born in Britain, set foot in Florida a decade ago. She says she likes lizards, even alligators, and appreciates the balmy climate. Fried mullet and grits aren't on the menu, but she knows a mockingbird when she hears one. She wrote and wrote, rewrote and rewrote her song.

She shared her first draft with a friend; he made fun of the way she pronounced "Florida'' and told her that under no circumstances could she use the expression "ocean to ocean'' as she had in her first draft. "It's ocean to gulf,'' he told her. "Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico.''

Her new lyrics envision the peninsula "sitting proud in the ocean like a sentinel true.''

• • •

She received her first musical lessons as a child, studied music in college, played piano and sang in nightclubs. Once, in a London airport lounge, as she performed on piano, she saw a beautiful blond woman with high cheekbones leaning against a wall. To this day she believes it had to be her musical hero, Joni Mitchell, listening to HER while waiting for a flight. She is working on A Song for Joni.

"Writing songs is an obsessive, creative disorder,'' Hinton tells people.

Her demo recording of Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky), on which she sang, played piano and everything else by computer, was among 243 contest entries. After it made the finals, she enlisted a children's choir to sing and digitally recorded the performance. On one of three lobbying trips to Tallahassee, she made sure key legislators had copies of the recording.

An anthem seldom contains rough edges: No downtrodden African-Americans picking cotton while longing for the old folks at home on the plantation, no country boys singing high and lonesome about the Orange Blossom Special train, no half-soused beach bum in flip-flops looking for that lost shaker of salt. Hinton wrote a perfectly safe hymn about her Florida.

Stephen Foster was the Irving Berlin of the 19th century. He wrote for the parlor and for the stage, often for white performers wearing black makeup. After Harriet Beecher Stowe humanized African-American suffering in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Foster wrote compassionate lyrics the rest of his life. His most famous song, My Old Kentucky Home, like Old Folks At Home, was written in the voice of slaves, though the poignant lyrics today strike the universal chord of a longing for home.

An advanced alcoholic, he died in New York's bowery district on Jan. 13, 1864. He had 38 cents in his pocket. So much for royalties. His music, notably Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair and Beautiful Dreamer, lives on.

At the last minute, Florida's legislators decided, grudgingly, for tradition's sake, to keep a rewritten, no "darkies" version of Old Folks at Home as the official Florida song. Hinton's squeaky clean creation was declared the Florida anthem.

"I'm happy Florida has both,'' she says, still enjoying her musicalext>al high. "I'm happy to be on the bill with Stephen Foster.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.

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