“Swanee River” (1935) Jimmie Lunceford and Sy Oliver, and (1940) Tommy Dorsey and Sy Oliver

“Swanee River”

Composed by Stephen Foster; arranged by Sy Oliver.

Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Decca on September 23, 1935 in New York.

Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eddie Tompkins, Paul Webster and Sy Oliver, trumpets; Russell Bowles, Elmer Crumbley and Eddie Durham, trombones; Willie Smith, first alto saxophone; Laforet Dent, Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas, tenor saxophone; Earl “Jock” Curruthers, baritone saxophone; Eddie Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmy “Craw” Crawford, drums.

The story: Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as “the father of American music,” was an American songwriter known primarily for his parlor and minstrel music. Foster wrote over 200 songs. Among his best-known are: “Oh! Susanna”; “Camptown Races”; “My Old Kentucky Home”; “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”; and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them. He has been identified as “the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century” and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries. His compositions are sometimes referred to as “childhood songs” because they have often been included in the music curriculum of primary education. 

Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River,” “Swanee Ribber” [from the original lyric], or “Suwannee River“), is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. The Suwannee River does exist, in Florida and Georgia. Foster himself never saw the Suwannee—or even visited Florida. Foster had composed most of the lyrics for this song, but was struggling to name the river of the opening line, and asked his brother to suggest one. The first suggestion was Yazoo in Mississippi, which despite fitting the melody perfectly, was rejected by Foster.The second suggestion was Pee Dee in South Carolina, to which Foster said, “Oh pshaw! I won’t have that.” His brother then consulted an atlas, and called out Suwannee! Foster said, “That’s it, exactly!” Adding it to the lyric, he purposely misspelled it as “Swanee” to fit the melody. According to Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories 1890–1954 (1986), “Old Folks at Home” was the best-selling sheet music song of the period, with over twenty million copies sold. “Old Folks at Home” in print was credited to E.P.Christy on early sheet music printings. Christy had paid Foster to be credited, which Foster himself had suggested, but later came to regret.(1)

Antonin Dvorak’s “Humoresque No. 7” written in the 1890s, is musically similar and is sometimes played along with “Old Folks at Home.”

Despite the widespread popularity of his songs, Foster died penniless at age 37. Later American composers of popular music used his tragic story to create political will in the U.S.Congress which eventually led to the Copyright Act of 1909. After that law created property rights in published and mechanically reproduced music, several of those composers created the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), to enforce its members’ musical copyrights by monitoring public performances of their music, whether via phonograph records, broadcasts (including films), live performances, or sheet music sales, and compensate them accordingly. Many composers and performers of popular were able to accumulate wealth as a result of the Copyright Act of 1909 and the enforcement of the royalty payment provisions that law. Stephen Foster would have been astonished. (The Stephen Foster commemorative stamp shown above left was issued on May 3, 1940. Tommy Dorsey was not a philatelist, but I’m sure he was aware of this development, and how it would help him sell a recording of “Swanee River.” See below.)


The music: Jimmie Lunceford’s recording of “Swanee River” had a lot to do with increasing the popularity of the song during the swing era. (Bunny Berigan also recorded it, in 1937 for Victor, and his recording was also popular.) Lunceford’s version was arranged by Sy Oliver, a trumpeter and singer in his band, whose efforts arranging various compositions for the Lunceford ensemble in the mid and later 1930s, revealed uncommon skill and taste.

Sy Oliver’s arrangement of “Swanee River” for the Lunceford band is certainly masterful. His use of the various sections of the band, brass (muted and open), reeds (unison and harmonized), and the various instrumental soloists, in ever-changing deployments, created an frequently shifting sonic mix. But most important was Oliver’s marvelous taste: his arrangements never sounded like pretentious, technical exercises done for gratuitous effect. They were balanced, logical, well-paced, and very musical, and they had a lot to do with the Lunceford band achieving great popularity in the mid and late 1930s.

The Jimmie Lunceford band at the Cotton Club in NYC – mid-1934: L-R: Eddie Wilcox, Lunceford, Moses Allen, Al Norris; saxophones: Willie Smith, Joe Thomas, Earl Curruthers; trumpets: Tommy Stevenson, Sy Oliver, Eddie Tompkins; trombones: Henry Wells and Russell Bowles.

By the time this recording was made in 1935, the Lunceford band had been existence for several years, and had performed extensively on the road in ballrooms for dancers, and in other settings. It had reached a level of ensemble unity and blend that few other bands equaled. Lunceford himself was a schooled musician who rehearsed his band rigorously, until they were able to perform whatever music they played at or near perfection. Lunceford’s approach to leading his band had much in common with great coaches of athletic teams. He relentlessly pursued excellence, but also instilled great spirit in his band members. The music played by the Lunceford band never sounded over-rehearsed or stale. Indeed, the opposite was true: it sounded relaxed, joyous and often humorous.

This performance is taken at a jaunty “Lunceford bounce” middle tempo in 2/4 time, also a Lunceford trademark. The harmonized cup-muted brass state the melody in the first chorus, with the fluid unison saxophones adding background counterlines. The secondary melody is carried by differently deployed muted brass with the first trumpet prominent. The last eight bars of the first chorus return to the format of the first sixteen. Then the impeccable (now harmonized) saxophones take the melody, in paraphrased form, followed by the open brass on the second theme. The third chorus spots solos: Elmer Crumbley on plunger-muted trumpet; Willie Smith on his soaring alto saxophone; Eddie Wilcox “strumming” his piano. Sy Oliver himself (pictured above left) on plunger muted trumpet in the finale brings this superior dance arrangement to a close.

“Swanee River”

Composed by Stephen Foster; arranged by Sy Oliver.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on October 16, 1940 in Hollywood.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Ray Linn, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Ziggy Elman, trumpets; George Arus, Les Jenkins, Lowell Martin, trombones; Freddie Stulce, first alto saxophone; Johnny Mince, alto saxophone; Paul Mason and Don Lodice, tenor saxophones; Heinie Beau, baritone saxophone; Joe Bushkin, piano; Clark Yokum, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

The story: After an idyllic season spent in Manhattan playing at the Roof Garden of Hotel Astor, and working on NBC radio as a summer replacement for Bob Hope’s Pepsodent sponsored radio show called Summer Pastime (no buses, no one-nighter tours), Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra were ready for some travel, and what promised to be a couple of profitable months in southern California. Three major jobs awaited the Dorsey band in Los Angeles: first, opening the new Palladium Ballroom; second, appearing in the Paramount feature film Las Vegas Nights; and third, beginning a new NBC network radio show called Fame and Fortune. Of course, the TD band would also continue making recordings for Victor whenever they had time, which was rarely. This spate of work in the film capital began what would be Tommy Dorsey’s increasing activity in Hollywood, which would last intermittently through World War II.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium – October 31, 1940, with Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra on the bandstand.

Sy Oliver was hired by Tommy Dorsey in the late spring of 1939. How Oliver was hired is a quintessential TD story. After working surreptitiously through intermediaries to let Oliver know that he was interested in hiring him, Dorsey dispatched his manager Bobby Burns to fetch Oliver, and bring him to a meeting to discuss terms of employment. The meeting took place in the suite Tommy was using at Hotel Pennsylvania while his band played at that hotel’s roof garden. Oliver was ushered into the bathroom, where TD was shaving. “He turned to me and said, ‘Sy, whatever you are making playing and writing for Jimmie, I’ll pay you $5,000.00 a year more.’ I said Sold! and that was it.’” (2) (The value of $5,000.00 in today’s dollars is $75,000.00.)

The music:

The arrangement Sy Oliver wrote on “Swanee River” for Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1940 was not simply a revision of his 1935 Lunceford arrangement. Although a few elements of that earlier arrangement do survive in the later one, the differences are far more interesting than the similarities. Indeed, the Dorsey arrangement reveals a completely new approach to the classic Stephen Foster melody.

The first change one notices is the different tempo: the earlier performance bounced along happily; this one unfolds in a slower, more deliberate, indeed stately, fashion. It begins with a floating, atmospheric eight-bar introduction, which immediately sets the mood of the piece. Hear the massed but whispering saxophones placed against the open brass playing quietly into their derby mutes (with a few strategically placed oos), and no discernible rhythmic support, except for Buddy Rich’s gently brushed high-hat cymbals.

Pianist Joe Bushkin’s allusive two-bars bring in the full, muscular Dorsey band with the first chorus melody statement, played in 4/4 meter. Oliver once again used the harmonized, open brass to set forth the melody, with the quiet unison saxophones underneath. In this arrangement, he simplifies what the brass play, and adds a couple of dynamic brass blasts for contrast. TD plays the secondary melody on his velvety open trombone, supported first by the rhythm, and then the reeds. The last eight bars of the first chorus contain a louder melody exposition than before. Note how Oliver uses the unison reeds as a cushion for the four trombones toward the end of this sequence.

The centerpiece of this arrangement is the 16 bar solo taken on open trumpet by Ziggy Elman (pictured at right). Here we find the often brash and blasting Mr. Elman in a decidedly thoughtful mode, fashioning a lovely 16 bar melodic paraphrase against a shifting background of reeds.

A sudden contrast comes when the full band, propelled by Rich’s drums and cymbals, brings on tenor saxophonist Don Lodice for a brief but full-bodied solo. He is followed by Joe Bushkin’s glistening piano solo, which sets up TD’s whispering cup-muted trombone, playing the main melody. This is once again followed by the whole band blasting through the final few bars, and then the last dynamic contrast at the very end.

Whereas Oliver achieved a number of contrasts in his earlier arrangement of “Swanee River” by using the various instruments in differing ways, here does that again, but he also employs quiet backgrounds and solos followed by brief forte explosions of the entire ensemble to add yet more vivid contrasts.

With this arrangement, the golden age of Sy Oliver with Tommy Dorsey’s band began. It would last through World War II, and yield numerous hits and brilliant arrangements, many of which have become a part of the essential canon of the swing era.

(1) The short biographical sketch of Stephen Foster is based on the Wikipedia post for him.

(2) The Big Bands by George T. Simon (1967), 167.

The recordings presented here were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


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  1. Another great post, Mr. Zirpolo.
    I’m glad that you included the significance of America’s most popular composer dying penniless leading, later, to the establishment of the
    Copyright Act of 1909. From this legislation ASCAP was established.
    As an account executive at a radio station I remember some of my retail clients playing popular music over speakers in their business WITHOUT paying ASCAP fees for the right to do so. ASCAP had a staff of members who would visit any public business and demand to see the owner’s ASCAP license. The retailer’s license fee was fairly inexpensive compared to radio station fees (I heard $50,000/year for my station).

  2. Great article! The quality of the arrangements and song writing in general today sadly suffers from the lack of infrastructure that record labels used to provide, along with the clarity and quality that network radio used to demand on bands before distribution. Today with the advent of video and internet outlets and self published music, the quality of a Sy Oliver is not appreciated. Various “talent” TV shows today fill the airwaves with songs and arrangements that are often subordinated to a dance routine or the vocal gymnastics of the Artist. This is why what Mike Zirpolo has done here and continues to do with this series is so important. This is no different than preserving and explaining a great painting to budding painters. Hopefully it will also stimulate some musicians to create music with the detail and precision of a Sy Oliver and Tommy Dorsey.

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