Ethel Waters popularized “I’m Coming Virginia,” composed by Donald Heywood with lyrics by Will Marion Cook. However, in her autobiography Waters appears to credit Heywood for both words and music. She recorded the song on September 18, 1926, with Will Marion Cook’s Singing Orchestra, according to redhotjazz.com. Trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke added further to the popularity of the tune when he recorded it with Frankie Trumbauer.
After recording the song in 1926, Waters starred in the full-length revue Africana in 1927, her first Broadway show. In His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography by Waters with Charles Samuels the actress describes the show as ...“patched up from all the little tab shows we’d been doing. It was a fast show and gave the theater-going ofays of Broadway their first long look at me. Africana opened at Daly’s Sixty-third Street Theatre, where Shuffle Along had its long run. I was the star and the Variety reviewer wrote ‘...Ethel Waters is the kick of Africana in her specialty. She started with ‘My Special Friend Is in Town’...the first niters ate that one up.’”
“... I also sang ‘I’m Coming Virginia’ and the Broadwayites loved it. I’d just made a record of that lovely song with ‘He Brought Joy to My Soul’ on the other side. But it was the first time the ofays had heard ‘I’m Coming Virginia’ in a theater.
“So Earl at last saw ‘Earl Dancer Presents...’ in lights over a Broadway Theater. Donald Heywood wrote the music and lyrics, and Louis Douglas, fresh from Paris, staged the dances. Louis was the son-in-law of Will Marion Cook.
“Africana had a good run [July 11 to September 10, 1927] and afterward we took it on the road, playing the midwest cities and closing in St. Louis with a bang.”
In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Alec Wilder says, “In 1927, ‘I’m Coming Virginia,’ with music by Donald Heywood was another lively rhythm song. The main strain is a series of strong rhythmic imitative phrases which establish the swinging character of the song, but I find the release and its continuous motion into a variant of the A sections the most interesting.
“I shouldn’t have said ‘A sections’ since the first section, though it repeats the first phrase of the song, then moves away and almost immediately into what I suppose should be called ‘the release.’
“It’s a twenty-four measure song, and the only feeling of stopping and starting up again (too often the awkwardness of pop songs) is in the seventh-measure cadence. But even this, due to adroit use of harmony, conveys continuous motion. It’s an unusual and a very good song.”
Dixieland versions of the song are usually at a sprightly tempo; however, Waters’ version is more of a lament. The verse of the song is about returning to a loved one: “Stop the traffic to Dixie, Hold it right at the line, Don’t want nothin’ betwixt me, and that old love of mine.” Jimmy Rushing, who recorded the song with a big band in 1958, takes the refrain uptempo, and without the verse the song could refer to the state of Virginia, referred to as “My Dixieland home”: “I’m coming Virginia, I’m coming to stay, Don’t hold it agin me, For running away.” The song occasionally goes by the title “I’m Comin’ Home Virginia.”
In the 1920s and ‘30s “I’m Coming Virginia” was recorded by Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman (who featured it in the famous 1938 concert), Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Maxine Sullivan, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. In the ‘40s and ‘50s it was recorded by Erroll Garner, Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, and Steve Lacy. In the following decades the song has faired less well but remains popular with Dixieland groups. Violinist Stephane Grappelli recorded it in 1981 and pianist/vocalist Dardanelle, in 1985; bassist Michael Moore’s trio featured it in the 2000 release History of Jazz, Vol. 1; and pianist Dick Hyman recorded it 2001.