Way down in the farthest reaches of Georgia along Highway 441 -- way, way, way down yonder at the Florida state line -- there's not much to see except a gazillion acres of the deepest, thickest woods on the planet, an occasional black bear or bobcat, congregations of 'gators, and lots and lots of possums, raccoons and armadillos. It's also near where you cross the Suwannee River, whose black-as-a-cast-iron-kettle water swirls and glugs sluggishly in the infamously wicked heat and humidity of the South.
The Suwannee, made famous in Stephen Collins Foster's "Ethiopian melody" of "Old Folks at Home" (it's also known as "Way Down Upon the Swanee River") that he wrote for Christy's Minstrels, then curls darkly down to the tiny North Florida town of White Springs, where the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center is located.
My mother was from White Springs (2008 population was 829), and we often visited when I was a child. We always made a side trip to the Folk Center, so before I was 10 or 12, I memorized the words to nearly all of Foster's songs, with "Old Folks at Home" -- we always called it simply "Suwannee River" -- my favorite. Only later would I learn that Foster actually wrote the song without having ever seen the river or even Florida. The words were chosen only to fit the poetic meter of the lyrics.
At the Folk Center, the grounds are rife with immense oaks drizzled with thick strands of Spanish moss. Inside the museum, colorful and dramatic dioramas depict antebellum scenes taken straight from Foster's song. I like the one of "Camptown Races" the best of all with the toy horses prancing 'round and 'round the track. Even as an adult, I never tire of the dioramas and always marvel at the intricate details of these small slices of life before the war. (If you have to ask which war, you are not a Southerner.)
The Carillon Tower across the grassy park from the museum is the world's largest tubular bell instrument and continuously -- and pleasantly, I might add -- plays Foster's music. You can hear the melodic bells reverberating for miles through these woods of tall pines and oaks.
Foster was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1826. In his lifetime, he wrote more than 200 songs, including minstrel show numbers and soulful, beautiful ballads like "My Old Kentucky Home," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."
His "Oh, Susanna!" became the theme song for the 1849 California gold rush, while "My Old Kentucky Home" became the state song of Kentucky, and the very politically incorrect "Old Folks at Home," which alludes to "de old plantation" and "darkeys," became Florida's.
Foster had family in Bardstown, Ky., and legend holds that he was inspired to write "My Old Kentucky Home" when in 1852 he was visiting Federal Hill, a former plantation built in the 1700s by the Rowan family, who were his cousins, and which now stands in My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
If you're a fan of Foster and if you visit Bardstown from now until Aug. 13, you can catch "The Stephen Foster Story" at the park. Long known as Kentucky's official outdoor musical, it is an annual summer event resplendent with all the pomp and circumstance of the upper class society of antebellum America and the timeless classic songs of Foster, who was considered American's first great composer.
Performed mostly by locals who have been involved in its production for years, it is set in the 1850s when cotillions and daylong barbecues were the primary entertainment of the era -- think along the lines of Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Tara and Twelve Oaks.
While there's not much to see in White Springs besides the Folk Center, there is plenty to do in Bardstown. Check out the Civil War heritage, vintage trains and bourbon trails with stops at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History & Bardstown Historical Museum -- could you ever imagine that bourbon has a museum? -- Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center, Maker's Mark Distillery, Jim Beam's American Outpost, and if you're visiting in September, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Back down in Georgia, you can also visit the Stephen C. Foster State Park in Fargo (the town is supposedly named because it's "far" to "go" to get to anywhere from there) on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, the headwaters of the Suwannee, and which is about an hour's drive from White Springs.
One more stop on the Stephen Foster trail is the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, located on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. One of his pianos is located there, as are copies of his musical compositions, memorabilia related to his life, and several musical instruments. He is buried at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.