This song, with lyrics by Irving Caesar, was introduced by Muriel DeForrest in Capitol Revue at the Capitol Theatre in New York City on October 24, 1919.
No one these days remembers a tune called “Hindustan” but its popularity in 1919 was directly responsible for the creation of Gershwin's first and biggest hit song. It was Irving Caesar who, aware of the success of “Hindustan,” suggested to Gershwin that they write an American version of that song. The composer immediately thought of Stephen Foster's “Swanee River” and they were off. In their book The Gershwin Years, Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart quote Caesar as follows:
“That evening we had dinner at Dinty Moore's, discussed the song, boarded a Riverside Drive bus, got up to his home on Washington Heights, and immediately went to the piano alcove, separated by the inevitable beaded curtain of the period from the dining room. There was a poker game in progress at th time.
In about fifteen minutes we had turned out “Swanee,” verse and chorus. But we thought the song should have a trio and for a few minutes were deciding about this addition. The losers in the game kept saying, 'Boys, finish it some other time' and the lucky ones urged us to complete the song right there and then. This we did, and old man Gershwin lost not a moment in fetching a comb, over which he superimposed some tissue, and [he accompanied] George while I sang it over and over again at the insistence of the winning poker players.”
Gershwin contributed “Swanee” and another new song (“Come to th Moon”) to Capitol Revue. This was a live show performed on the stage of a newly opened movie house called The Capitol Theatre. The revue shared the bill with the theater's first silent movie showings. As performed by Muriel DeForrest at that venue, “Swanee” was a dud. It did not take off until Al Jolson, having heard Gershwin play it at a party, interpolated it into his revue Sinbad. Jolson was phenomenally successful with it, selling over two million records and more than a million copies of the sheet music. In its first year the song earned its authors about $10,000 each—substantial money in 1919 and substantial money even today for a half hour's work.
The song's real, if tenuous Asian origins came full circle in 1920 when a young composer named Vladimir Dukelsky bought a copy of the music in Constantinople. Immediately, it severed that Russian's musical personality, turning half of him into Vernon Duke (a name later given to him by Gershwin himself), author of such pop standards as “April in Paris” and “I Can't Get Started,” while the Dukelsky half continued along separately and independently, writing symphonies and concertos.
On November 1, 1923 Eva Gauthier included “Swanee” in an Aeolian Hall recital, with the composer accompanying her at the piano.
Gershwin's piano transcription of this song appears in George Gershwin's Songbook, a work published in September of 1932.
There may have been a degree of calculation in Gershwin's desire to write a big hit like “Hindustan” but this is not the song of a cautious musician. The thirty-two bar verse (“I've been away from you a long time”)--which is every bit a catchy as the refrain—starts the song off in the key of F-minor even though the refrain will be in F-major. A sudden and arresting use of a D-natural occurs in the ninth bar of the verse (on “somehow” in “somehow I feel”), which begins a modal cadence. Equally unusual is the sixteen-bar trio section in the refrain (“Swanee, Swanee, I am coming back”). All in all there are eighty bars of exciting music in this song and, luckily, the lyric has the saving grace of not taking itself too seriously. Its silliness (“D-I-X-I-E-ven know”) has helped keep the song alive.
Gershwin's piano roll, released in February of 1920, came out a month after Jolson made his landmark recording. But Jolson was not the first to sing it on record. In 1919 there were recordings by Gene Rodemich and His Orchestra, Nicholas Orlando's Dance Orchestra, and the Peerless Quartette. At a September 8, 1937 George Gershwin memorial concert, Jolson sang “Swanee” with an orchestra conducted by Victor Young. Judy Garland sang the song in her 1954 film A Star is Born, at her 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert, and in a recording with her daughter, Liza Minnelli.
You can hear Garland laughing as she makes her 1954 recording at: