Stephen Foster Digitized Song Book
July 29, 2005 2:49 PM   Subscribe

In the pantheon of American popular music, Pennsylvanian Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) is a muse to all followers. He penned: "Oh, Susanna"; "My Old Kentucky Home"; "Old Folks at Home" ('Way Down Upon the Swanee River') and "Camptown Races" among a legacy of over 200 songs. Foster contributed greatly to the rise in popularity of the minstrel shows, displaying a humanitarian attitude towards blacks in his 'plantation songs', despite only visiting the south once briefly on his honeymoon. Copyright being what it was in those days, he made not much more than $9000 in his lifetime from publishing royalties. He died a pauper in New York following a head injury and was found with just 38c and a scrap of paper in his pocket book that read: "Dear friends and gentle hearts". His sketch book of songs was recently digitized and is hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. via
posted by peacay (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some of Foster's songs made it into Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature, which has a score composed entirely of nineteenth-century popular music.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:07 PM on July 29, 2005

Indeed, some of them made it into his own musical.
posted by peacay at 3:18 PM on July 29, 2005

Great stuff, peacay, thanks! I'd run across the Stephen Foster PBS link recently, and it occured to me that it could be part of a great post, but I didn't have time to follow through. I'm glad you did.
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:37 PM on July 29, 2005

Thanks for these excellent links. Believe it or not, one of the best Stephen Foster LPs ever made was "Songs of Stephen Foster" by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (crazy as it sounds). It is postively psychedelic. Their version of "Open Thy Lattice Love" (Foster' first published song) is a swirling, soaring masterpiece. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear on the CD re-release, which is called "Songs of Stephen Foster and the Civil War" which includes songs by others (and it great also). Of course, the state of the art in Stephen Foster is the Jan DeGaetani recordings on Nonesuch (vols. 1 and 2) that are not to be missed, and can be purchased all over the net.

Also, if you love Stephen Foster, don't miss the Nonesuch
album "Who Shall Rule this American Nation? Songs of the Civil War Era by Henry Clay Work." (Piano by William Bolcomb, voice by his lovely wife Ira, and spine-tingling chorus by the Camerata Singers.) This is, bar none, the greatest album ever made. If you love Stephen Foster (and I can see by this lovely post that you do), you MUST check out the Work album. It all comes together here: great 19th century songs of sentiment, heart-stoppingly beautiful performances, stirring war songs, soul-lifting peace songs. Don't miss it.
posted by Faze at 5:54 PM on July 29, 2005

Ok, so I know next to nothing about this Foster fellow, but how in the world did minstrel shows display a humanitarian attitude toward blacks? Didn't minstrel shows basically exist to ridicule blacks?
posted by afroblanca at 6:26 PM on July 29, 2005

Last year's Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster was one of my favorite albums of 2004.
posted by maurice at 6:27 PM on July 29, 2005

Yeah, this chap is a real friend of black folks. For example,

Oh! Susanna, Oh! don't you cry for me,
I’ve come from Alabama, wid my banjo on my knee.

I jumped aboard de telegraph,
And trabbelled down de ribber,
De Lectrie fluid magnified,
And killed five hundred Nigger
De bullgine bust, de horse run off,
I realy thought I’d die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath,
Susanna, don't you cry.


No one ever sings the second verse.
posted by jmgorman at 6:42 PM on July 29, 2005

Actually, Stephen Foster was a die-hard abolitionist. "My Old Kentucky Home" is a first-person lament about a slave who has been sold "down the river", separated from family and loved ones and transported unwillingly to the much harsher plantations of the deep south; this practice was much loathed because of the way it split up families.

In light of that, jmgorman, perhaps a song about an accident killing hundreds of blacks might be viewed in a different way, even if it's come down to us with all the meaning stripped out of the verses. Mark Twain used "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, too; it was the argot of the time.
posted by kyrademon at 6:49 PM on July 29, 2005

Just to add to kyrademon's post: the full lyrics to "My Old Kentucky Home" make it much clearer - but no one sings the parts about "the days pass by like a shadow o'er the heart" or "just a few more days till we totter on the road". See also the lyrics to "Old Folks at Home" and "Old Black Joe.
posted by dilettante at 7:17 PM on July 29, 2005

Count me among those who don't care whether things help or hurt black people.

The entire concept of beating one's breast over the fate of black people may be the most boring thing a person can do.

Black people can take care of themselves. So, all you self-appointed "friends of black people," take a hike.

And, for your information, the modern blues business as born in what was called "race records" in the teens and 1920s. And, yes, having a place to perform and make money beats having no place to perform and no place to make money.

Looking at the past from the vantage point of a spoiled modern kid is an exercise in lunacy.
posted by Shouting at 7:47 PM on July 29, 2005

Didn't minstrel shows basically exist to ridicule blacks?

It's a bit more complex than that:
posted by y2karl at 7:55 PM on July 29, 2005

Shouting is the new bad commie, is he not ?
posted by y2karl at 8:03 PM on July 29, 2005

posted by trey at 8:04 PM on July 29, 2005

I wonder if Shouting will ever realize the fundamental irony of repeatedly posting to metafilter about how no one cares about the opinions of people posting to metafilter.

Cause, yeah, god forbid we have any discussion of black people in a thread about the life work of one of the most important abolitionists of the nineteenth century, whose political opinions were written into songs that were still sung today, but whose lyrics and practices can nonetheless still sometimes sound racist to modern ears since he was a product of his time. Any discussion of race is clearly *way off topic*, whereas Shouting's 932nd repetition of why he doesn't care what other people have to say clearly is.

posted by kyrademon at 8:04 PM on July 29, 2005

(Sorry. That should really have been on MeTa, and I will take the rest of it there.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:06 PM on July 29, 2005

Nice one, peacay!
posted by shoepal at 9:01 PM on July 29, 2005

Thanks for the links, y2karl.
posted by afroblanca at 1:06 AM on July 30, 2005

Just read Nick Tosches book about minstrelsy Were Dead Voices Gather. Basically, American pop culture is deeply rooted in American racial history, and the interaction between whites playing blacks and blacks playing whites. Tosches sees minstrel shows as "America's first indigenous theatrical form."

"To speak with a straight face of minstrelsy in terms of Herrenvolk, the Nazi concept of master-race, or in terms of ancestral feudal memories is to illustrate not so much the subject at hand but rather the essential folly of academic thinking. ... if minstrelsy is to be understood, it must be seen neither with myopic simplicity, as a "racial relic"... nor as a textbook manifestation of ideology or psychology.
posted by zaelic at 2:54 AM on July 30, 2005

Just by the by, if perchance my wording was a tad misleading, I was trying to say that Foster himself had a humanitarian outlook in the way he viewed and portrayed blacks. That phrase wasn't meant to imply that this attitude is the overall 'minstrel theme' or the like.

I had perused parts of y2karl's wonderful posts (I nearly linked them singly as he has done, but there are a few others backgrounding this topic in that link) but I hadn't really gone into the minstrelsy background very much when I was reading before making this post.

However I did see more than just a few comments vouching for Foster's progressive attitude (for the time) towards blacks, as is reflected in the FPP links.
posted by peacay at 4:30 AM on July 30, 2005

y2karl's minstrel posts are legendary in the business, and are a great introduction to wonderful contradictions that drive American popular music. But there is much more to Foster than the minstrel tunes. His ballads are his best stuff. I want "Beautiful Dreamer" played at my funeral (the scene in Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married" where the girl is played back into the future by a gauntlet of fez-wearing men playing "Beautiful Dreamer" on mandolins, is one of my favorite moments in cinema).
He also wrote charming gallops ("Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight" -- only recorded version on a Vox Box set called "The Age of Sentiment") and laments ("Gentle Annie", "Ah May the Red Rose Live Always").
What a sordid death he had.
posted by Faze at 5:33 AM on July 30, 2005

Stephen Foster is one of the few things that matters in this world. Him, and Henry Clay Work. Okay, and George F. Root. Sometimes.
posted by Faze at 5:35 AM on July 30, 2005

Oh yeah, and forget that "tribute album" called "Beautiful Dreamer," from a few years back, where they got a bunch of washed up hippies who didn't know Stephen Foster from Eminem to do half-baked versions of what I had always considered indestructable songs. Stephen Foster was not a "folk" artist, and to nasally whine his songs while strumming crude chords on the guitar is a monumentally kitschy approach. Foster was America's Shubert, and his original instrumental arrangements are important.
posted by Faze at 6:09 AM on July 30, 2005

the scene in Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married" where the girl is played back into the future by a gauntlet of fez-wearing men playing "Beautiful Dreamer" on mandolins, is one of my favorite moments in cinema...

Calling those things fezzes is like calling wedding cakes cupcakes.

Peggy Sue Got Married had any number of subtle moments to it--the part where she comes home to find to find her mother selling jewelry to make ends meet or where she answers a phone and nearly drops it after hearing her grandmother's voice, for example, linger with me yet. It had its flaws as a movie, I think, but it sure had its moments.

My first baby sitter of memory was an old lady who learned to play piano in the very early 1900s--Beautiful Dreamer and Shine On Harvest Moon were in her repertoire. Both were minstrel songs in their time, I come to find.
posted by y2karl at 6:37 AM on July 30, 2005

...where she answers a phone and nearly drops it after hearing her grandmother's voice...

The expression on her face when she hears the voice is incredible. I choke up at that part. Bad.

It had its flaws as a movie, I think, but it sure had its moments.

You said a mouthful, buddy.

posted by Faze at 7:52 AM on July 30, 2005

(I got so choked up thinkin' about it, I forgot to end my italics and so distinguish my comments from karl's.)
posted by Faze at 7:55 AM on July 30, 2005

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