“Swanee” and Baba
by Kendra Crossen
In a letter to Kitty Davy, Mehera called “Swanee” Baba’s “other favorite song,” his first being “Begin the Beguine.” She noted that the first line was “I have been away from you a long time.” It was Mehera who taught Baba to sing “Swanee”; she had learned it at St. Helena’s, a school in Pune for children of all religious communities that she began attending at age 14 (Mehera-Meher, vol. 1, pp. 53, 148).
Mehera wrote to Kitty: “This song Baba used to sing before He was on silence. When we came to Baba in the ashram, I used to sing it while doing my duties. One day Baba heard it and asked me for the song which He liked very much. We sang it together a few times, then Baba used to sing it alone very beautifully as He has a very lovely singing voice. He said it was the first English song He had sung, and from then on He had a flair for good English songs, because Baba likes only the mystical songs (Qawali), many of which are from Hafiz and Jigar” (letter from Mehera J. Irani to Kitty Davy, October 1959, in Kitty Davy, Love Alone Prevails, p. 552).
Later, a recording of “Swanee” by Al Jolson was obtained to play for Baba (Mehera-Meher, vol. 1, p. 148). Baba did not care for the flip side, “Springtime in the Carolinas” (p. 277)—ironically, since his future Home in the West, Meher Spiritual Center, was to be in South Carolina.
Wikipedia succinctly defines “Swanee” as “an American popular song written in 1919 by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Irving Caesar. It is most often associated with singer Al Jolson. … It was written partly as a parody of Stephen Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home.’” I included that last sentence because the composer Stephen Foster is a paternal ancestor of mine. You’ve got to take your “Baba links” where you find them.
The Al Jolson version is the classic, but since he often sang it in blackface, the performance seems embarrassingly racist today. I much prefer the Muppets version, in which the chorus is performed by penguins, who are both black and white.