Al Jolson, vocal, music by George Gershwin, lyric by Irving Caesar

“Swanee,” composed in 1919, music by George Gershwin, lyric by Irving Caesar.

According to Michael Feinstein, Gershwin and Caesar wanted to write a fast one-step in the style of a hit song at the time titled “Hindustan” but give it an American twist—hence the reference to the Swanee River. The song was first used as a big production number in Ned Wayburn’s Capital Revue, and was considered to be one of the highlights of that show. But nobody bought the sheet music, which was a main revenue source for songwriters in those days.  As Feinstein tells it, “George and his brother Ira would sometimes go out in the lobby and try and hawk the song, or go up and buy a copy themselves to try and get a stream of interest going. And nobody was interested in the song. Well, the next scene comes in a whorehouse, at this party with Buddy DaSilva, Al Jolson, and a young George Gershwin who was playing piano. And Buddy DaSilva very generously said ‘George, play that song you wrote with Irving.’  And George played it, and Jolson turned to his conductor, Lou Silvers, who was also at the party and later wrote “April Showers” and said ‘Lou, I’m going to put that into the show on Tuesday’. And it went into a show that Jolson was performing called Sinbad, and it became an instantaneous hit. Then Jolson recorded the song in 1920, many months after he’d introduced it, and the song eventually sold several million copies of sheet music and several million records, an extraordinary number for those days. And it was the biggest hit song of George Gershwin’s career in spite of the fact that he had many other songs that he preferred in his canon. But Swanee was always his biggest hit.”

PBS Episode(s): 3
Performance: 1920, 78 rpm record
Performance Type: Recording
related song(s)
related performer(s)
Al Jolson
related songwriter(s)
George Gershwin
Irving Caesar