With ear toward diversity, Crist changes event's tune


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 11:49 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - In a sign that the new governor is serious about embracing the state's diversity, Charlie Crist broke with tradition Tuesday and didn't play the official state song at his inauguration.

In recent years, most governors have used the ''Old Folks at Home'' at their inaugural ceremonies. The state song - written by Stephen Foster in 1851 and adopted by the state in 1935 - has been criticized for its racially tinged lyrics. The original version used an alleged slave dialect with the singer ''longing for de old plantation.''

More modern renditions have dropped the dialect and replaced some of the most offensive words - such as using ''brothers'' in place of ''darkeys.''

But Crist went a step further. He dropped the entire song from the ceremony.

Vivian Myrtetus, the governor's communications director, said the new governor made the decision to use a different song because he was concerned about the racial implications of the state song.

Crist asked for replacement suggestions from Earle Lee, director of the Boys' Choir of Tallahassee, a group comprised largely of at-risk minority youths. The musical organization, which has gained national acclaim, helps the youths stabilize their lives, with the ultimate goal of sending them to college.

Lee said he gave the Crist campaign a list of songs, with the new governor ultimately deciding upon ''The Florida Song,'' which is one of the choir's favorites.

''The words are just fantastic,'' Lee said. ''It's just a great song.''

And ''The Florida Song'' has its own backstory. It was written by Charles Atkins, a renowned jazz musician who lives in Tallahassee. Atkins began to develop his musical talent while he was a student at The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine - the same school once attended by Ray Charles.

Lee said Atkins, who runs the Blues Lab at Florida State University's College of Music, helped the choir with an arrangement of the song. He said it has become one of the choir's staples along with ''America the Beautiful.''

What this all meant was that shortly before Crist was sworn in as Florida's 44th governor on Tuesday, the crowd gathered on the east side of the Old Capitol didn't hear the traditional verse of: ''Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away.'' Swanee was Foster's musically abbreviated rendering of Florida's Suwannee River - a place he never visited.

In its place was ''The Florida Song,'' written by a black musician born in Daytona Beach.

''O Florida, O Florida, your flowers grow and your rivers roll along,'' the Tallahassee boys' choir sang. ''When other hopes and dreams are gone, your lessons will live on. Florida you are my home, sweet home.''

  • A PARADE OF GOVERNORS: Along with outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush, three other former governors attended Crist's inaugural ceremonies. They included Gov. Claude Kirk (1967-71); Reubin Askew (1971-79); and Bob Martinez (1987-1991).

    Martinez gave Crist high marks for ''reaching out'' to different groups in his inaugural speech. And he said Crist has done a good job of assembling a highly qualified staff to help him lead his administration. ''He's gotten off to a great start,'' Martinez said.

    Kirk, who will celebrate his 80th birthday later this week, called Crist's speech ''great.''

    ''He hit on what ought to be done,'' Kirk said.

    Kirk, who was Florida's first Republican governor in the 20th century, predicted Crist will have an easier time than he did when he was elected in 1966 and had to face a Democrat-controlled Legislature and state Cabinet. Crist follows a popular Republican governor, Bush, and will deal with a Legislature solidly controlled by the GOP.

    Kirk put his own election into historical perspective. ''I was the first Republican since Pontius Pilate,'' he said.

  • ANOTHER FIRST FOR CRIST: Crist is the first Floridian of Greek heritage to assume the state's highest political post. He remains proud of his background, mentioning in his inaugural speech that his grandfather, Adam Christodoulos, came to America from Cyprus ''as a penniless 14-year-old boy.''

    ''He could not speak the language but he had a dream,'' Crist said.

    Although his grandfather has passed on, Crist said he remains close ''in my heart.''

    ''I'm sure he is proud his grandson has just become the governor of the fourth-largest state in the greatest country on the face of the earth,'' Crist said.

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