As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 17, 2004
There’s no doubt that Stephen Foster is one of the greatest songwriters ever to spring from American soil. His songs paint a picture of the mid 19th Century that have become an ingrained part of the way we look at that era.
Making a tribute album to Foster is a long overdue idea. However Beautiful Dreamer: the Songs of Stephen Foster, the recent “various artists” tribute gives an incomplete picture of Foster, and thus an incomplete portrait of his era.
Quick history lesson: Though many of Foster’s best-known songs deal with the antebellum South, Foster was born near Pittsburgh, Pa. In 1826.
He is recognized as America’s first professional songwriter. But despite writing some songs still being sung 150 years later, his final days were spent in poverty, alcoholism and despair. At the age of 37 he committed suicide by slashing his own throat.
So that would make him the Kurt Cobain of his era. But before that, he was Elvis Presley.
Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and those who loved them were drawn to the wild and mysterious music called rhythm & blues and mutated it in a new style called rock ‘n’ roll. Likewise, many white musicians in Foster’s era were drawn to the African-American music of their era, turning it into blackface minstrel music. Beautiful Dreamer’s liner notes describes this music as “the rowdy, racist and first uniquely American form of popular entertainment.”
Several music historians have noted the sociological similarities between rock and minstrelsy.
Foster as a youth ate up the minstrel songs. While his songs were grounded in European styles, the minstrel element is what made Foster’s music unique and powerful.
But despite some fine performances by some respectable artists here, Beautiful Dreamer presents a largely bowdlerized, almost Disneyland version of Stephen Foster.
Sure it’s got the song “Beautiful Dreamer” (sung beautifully by Raul Malo), “Old Kentucky Home” (by native Kentuckian John Prine) and a breezy, funky “Oh Susanna” by Michelle Shocked, on which she is backed up by guitarist Pete Anderson.
And it’s got some pretty versions of lesser known Foster tunes. Grey DeLisle, who normally sings like she’s channeling spirits of the 19th Century, does her strange magic on “Willie We Have Missed You.” And the ever-amazing Allison Krauss will make you weak kneed on “Slumber My Darling.” which she sings with an ensemble including fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer and classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
But what about “Old Black Joe”? What about “Massa’s in De Cold Ground”? Where is Foster’s minstrel side?
Politically incorrect? Why, sure.
But don’t say it can’t be done.
A couple of years ago Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis did a powerful rocking version of “Old Black Joe” that transcended any possible racist overtones. (Foster detractors tend to forget that like most the black people in Foster’s songs, Joe has always been a sympathetic character, not the subject of ridicule.)
And a couple of years ago Tampa, Fla. Roots rocker Ronny Elliott recorded a version of “Oh Susanna” that included a forgotten verse in which Foster actually used “the N word.”
“I jumped aboard the telegraph/And traveled down the river/The electric fluid magnified/ And killed 500 niggers.”
In his liner notes of his album Poisonville, Elliott wrote, “I restored the dreaded second verse to remind us that maybe society does inch along.” In doing so, Elliott raised serious questions. Is it better to forget these hideous reminders of the ugliness of our past? Should we whitewash -- so to speak -- our heritage, or confront head on ugly reminders of racism in our national heritage?
Beautiful Dreamer answers that question in its timidity.
To be fair, this album is hardly the first time Foster has been smoothed over for contemporary sensibilities. Despite what you learned in elementary school music class, (and despite the words John Prine sings here), in Foster’s original version it wasn’t the “old folks” who are “gay” in “My Old Kentucky Home.” (And as long as we’re cleaning up Foster, isn’t it time to rewrite that whole line?)
I’m not saying Michelle Shocked was obligated to sing “the dreaded second verse” of “Oh Susanna.” But wouldn’t it have been great to hear someone like Chuck D or Michael Frante do their own update of “Massa’s in De Cold Ground”?
As it happens, two of the strongest tunes here are by African-American performers. Mavis Staples does a passionate take on “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
But even better is Alvin Youngblood Hart’s rendition of an obscure Foster song from 1849 called “Nelly Was a Lady.” It’s the lament of a slave for his dead wife. The gruff-voiced bluesman sings the tune with the sad, simple dignity Foster intended.
Despite Foster’s minstrel-show roots and demeaning racial slurs in some of the songs, Foster had the respect of black abolition leader Frederick Douglass, who praised Foster’s empathy for slaves.
And later, W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” would write, “The well of sorrow from which Negro music is drawn is also a well of mystery....I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow.”
Too bad Beautiful Dreamer doesn’t delve deeper into the complex well of Stephen Foster.
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