I’ve just finished reading the most informative and entertaining biography of Stephen Foster ever written:
Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture – Ken Emerson (1998)
The two questions you’re most likely asking are “Who’s Stephen Foster?” and “So what?”
You may not know him by name, but you’ve heard his songs — probably quite a few of them. Time and changing mores have separated much of what he wrote from its original meaning, but his best songs’ refrains have been woven so deeply into the American fabric that their writer’s intentions are almost beside the point. For kids of my generation, our first exposure to Foster’s music was probably Bugs Bunny singing his peculiar, hammy version of “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” or maybe an “Oh! Susanna” or “Camptown Races” singalong in the classroom. They’re songs that seem to have been around forever; it’s as if nobody wrote them. They just are.
This intrinsic quality does Foster no favors; by the time anybody is old enough to care about music, they’re as likely to think deeply about “Camptown Races” as they are “Happy Birthday.” This is understandable, albeit a little tragic, because Stephen Foster was the first real American songwriter.
Clearly, other Americans had written songs before Foster; what sets him apart is that he was the first to turn it into a full-time occupation. Songwriting in the early 19th century was women’s work, and something that, more often than not, would be confined to the family parlor. Artistic pursuits, then as now, were regarded as flaky and of uncertain worth; in Foster’s time, they were also unmanly. In Emerson’s view, Foster’s decision to forge ahead as a professional songwriter was due more to an unwillingness to stay in school or pursue an office job than any kind of artistic vision, but that’s largely irrelevant. Whether or not he intended to, Foster kicked off a cultural revolution, one whose aftershocks continue to reverberate.
After granting such high praise, it’s important to note that the artistic genius of Stephen Foster — or lack thereof — is certainly open to debate. That he broke new musical ground is irrefutable; his synthesis of blackface and “respectable” parlor music forged a template for pop songwriting that’s yet to be broken. This synthesis seems to have been driven by commercial concerns, however — Foster’s early success as a writer of popular blackface songs threatened to destroy his chances of ever being taken seriously as an artist, and became a weight he struggled to be rid of for much of his career. He spent a lot of time vacillating between blackface songs and parlor ballads; only briefly did he manage to blend the two, and even then, he seemed unaware of his music’s potential. He certainly isn’t to be blamed for this — no one was aware of its potential, after all. And had he been gifted with a better head for business, perhaps he might have secured better royalty rates for himself, and been able to concentrate more on art than commerce.
Perhaps, but probably not — he was never good with money, and had a passionate love affair with alcohol to boot. Somewhat fittingly, America’s first songwriter (and first real pop star) was also the first to get ripped off and drink himself into the gutter.
Much of Foster’s music (particularly, of course, the blackface songs) contains racist propaganda masquerading as lyrics, and to the modern reader, it’s all but impossible to divorce the offensive dialect from any musical merit. Emerson does a good job, though, of pointing out that Foster — however subtly — conveyed a more sympathetic, full-bodied image of black people than any of his white contemporaries. There’s compelling proof to support Emerson’s belief that “The Old Folks At Home,” one of Foster’s greatest and most successful songs, was inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin; in any case, the wildly popular stage production of the book featured a number of Foster’s works. This is not to suggest that he was an abolitionist. Foster was a staunchly conservative Democrat, had family ties to James Buchanan, and — though he eventually would write pro-Lincoln songs in an effort to make ends meet — an unabashed pacifist. More than anything, he was probably — like many Americans — conflicted. This doesn’t let him off the hook for the “darkeys” and “niggas” that litter his early work; it does, however, provide the modern reader with a more nuanced portrait of a songwriter whose music deserves to be regarded critically before being written off as simply racist.
Foster’s career predated radio, or the popular sale of recordings, and earned his royalties through the sales of sheet music; this makes finding “definitive” versions of his songs problematic, to say the least. Insofar as they were hits, Foster’s greatest works were popular in America’s living rooms, and by the time we had modern pop stars, these songs were already antiques. Recordings of Stephen Foster songs, therefore, tend to be the domain of corny “Old Time Revue”-type outfits, poorly produced, and issued with shudder-inducing cover artwork consisting of a terrible painting of some anonymous countryside, or a photo of a group of guys in sweaters (or both). His songs deserve to be given fresh, affectionate treatments, and that’s where this album comes in:
Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (2004)
It’s a great compilation, created with a unified spirit, performed by artists who understand the tremendous debt that American popular music owes Foster. It sounds like hyperbole, but without Stephen Foster, there’s no pop, no rock, no rap, no metal; his first tentative steps toward musical miscegenation created a cultural wellspring. And — even better — you don’t need to appreciate this to be able to enjoy the album. Download John Prine’s “My Old Kentucky Home” (download), Roger McGuinn’s “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” (download), The Duhks’ “Camptown Races” (download), and Ron Sexsmith’s “Comerades Fill No Glass For Me” (download) for a small taste of Beautiful Dreamer.