In October 1919 in New York City, a Gershwin song with lyrics by Irving Ceasar was featured in a Capitol Theatre revue called Demi-Tasse. It was used as a production number with 60 girls dancing with electric lights in their slippers.
A few weeks earlier, Irving Ceasar had said to George, “Let’s go to Moore’s Chop House, have dinner then go back to your house and write a song. We’ll make it an American one-step and we’ll call it Swanee.”
When they got back to Gershwin’s apartment in Washington Heights, there was a card game going on. But they wrote the song in about 12 minutes, despite the card players complaining that their game was being interfered with by Ceasar’s lusty singing and Gershwin’s piano pounding.
This was the song used in the show but despite the impressive setting it made no great impact.
Not long after, Gershwin was playing the song at a party (hogging the piano as usual) where Al Jolson heard it and loved it. The lyrics fitted his black-faced stage act. There was an allusion to Stephen Foster’s Way Down Upon The Swanee River – even a reference to the ‘old folks at home’. Jolson put it into his show Sinbad and recorded it for Columbia.
“After that,” said George, “Swanee penetrated the four corners of the earth.”
The song sold a million music copies and a million records. It became the biggest-selling song that Gershwin had in his life. He was just 20 years old.
Athur Schwartz said: “It’s ironic that he never again wrote a number equaling the sales of Swanee, which for all its infectiousness, doesn’t match the individuality and subtlety of his later works.”
Swanee is Gershwin’s only ‘pop’ song. His other hits came from the theatre or from films.
But it was the money he earned from Swanee ($10,000) that enabled him to concentrate on these greater works. He never wrote single songs again.
Verse: I’ve been away from you a long time.
I never though I’d miss you so.
Somehow I feel, your love was real. Near you, I long to be.
The birds are singing. It is songtime.
The banjos strummin’ soft and low.
I know that you, yearn for me too. Swanee you’re calling me.
Chorus: Swanee, how I love you, how I love you, my dear old Swanee.
I’d give the world, to, be, among the folks in D-I-X-I-Even know my,
Mammy’s, waiting for me, praying for me, down by the Swanee.
The folks up north will see me no more, when I go to the Swanee shore.
Tag: Swanee, Swanee, I am coming back to Swanee.
Mammy, Mammy, I love the old folks at home.