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If history is a river, let it take the state song

Just when it looked like we could claim a little progress, a fumble in finding a fix for our state song.

On the heels of last week's Legislative apology for Florida's role in slavery — a gesture that cost little and meant a lot — comes the latest on the well-known 1851 Stephen Foster minstrel show tune.

Old Folks at Home, better known as Way Down Upon the Swanee River, is especially familiar to those of us who sang it for years alongside our classmates in Florida elementary schools.

Or Suwannee "Ribber," if you go by his lyrics, lyrics being a serious sore spot here.

Foster, who reportedly never visited Florida, penned the song in the voice of a black slave who was pining for the old plantation — an attempt, historians have said, to humanize slaves.

Of particular concern today is its reference to "darkeys." Some citizens would prefer this official symbol of their state not contain language now considered racist — or at the very least, offensive.

On the other side, purists, particularly those in rural counties and with a connection to the Suwannee River itself, say history and tradition are what's most important here.

That resistance could kill efforts toward a new state song pending in the current legislative session.

Much like last week's apology, what happens next will not noticeably change this state. It won't fix roads or create sensible laws or come up with funds for critical programs currently on the chopping block.

Like the apology, what happens next will be largely symbolic and also important.

The options:

1. Change the words.

Clearly offered in the spirit of compromise, this is seen by some as the easiest and most sensible solution. We officially remove words that are considered offensive, as people have done when singing Old Folks at Home at events in the past.

Not to be a spoilsport, particularly when people seem to be genuinely trying here, but do folks who claim Swanee River is an integral part of Florida history really want to rewrite it?

Isn't what Stephen Foster wrote the way he wrote it the most valuable reflection of a moment in time? And shouldn't it stay that way, with or without state song status?

Corrupting the integrity of a piece of history doesn't seem like our best answer.

2. Adopt a new song.

A tune called Florida, Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky, written by a teacher who won a statewide contest, is up for consideration. This one's got gators, orange blossoms and rockets.

It's an option, even if it is sung with an emphasis on the last syllable of our state name, as in FloriDUH, a little too reminiscent of a national nickname we picked up during some really dark days.

Seriously, this one could work.

3. Leave the state song alone.

Here's a hypothetical: Think of words used to reference your own race, religion, ethnic background or gender, the kind you find insulting

Now how about if the song that's supposed to be a symbol of the state where you live contained those sorts of words?

Maybe that's the lesson in last week's apology. Maybe there comes a time when history — history which should be studied and remembered and learned from — should also become, officially, history.

If history is a river, let it take the state song 04/04/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 2:23pm]

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