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Andrew Edlin

Stephen Foster - the first American pop song

For the first half of the nineteenth century in America, almost everybody carried around the same question, namely, what in blazes are we doing here? Between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, we fought Mexico for Texas and, to our surprise, won the whole Southwest. We talked the British out of Oregon. We simply took California. I imagine this group of our forefathers to be more or less in the position of the dog who finally catches the car it's been chasing. Then the dog has to learn to drive the car.

These are the liner notes from the CD "American Dreamer, Songs of Stephen Foster" by Thomas Hampson.

We could argue that we've been learning to drive ever since, but it's important for us now to understand the spanking newness of things at that point in our short history, the sheer power we had, and the inherent terror of social and cultural momentum. Plenty of people had tried empires, but nobody had done an America before.

Stephen Foster lived and wrote popular songs during this great and terrifying period of expansion and consolidation in America, and we can hear that in these remarkable recordings by Thomas Hampson and his collaborators, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, and David Alpher. This was a big, violent country for the entire span of Foster's life — but what he did was crystallize and refract in his work what America had accomplished up to that point. He was our first popular composer, and his work tells us about the country he saw in the same way that Irving Berlin or Richard Rodgers tell us about America in the first half of their century.

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, in which he basically demanded that we engineer another revolution, this time against European cultural dominance of the United States. Lots of people were thinking the same thing — the painters of the Hudson River School essentially took the European notion of romanticism and exploded it by knocking it against the subject of the American wilderness. We hear America musically breaking away from Europe in Stephen Foster.

Foster clearly had remarkable ears, and a remarkably prescient sense of how to use them. He used them to collect the cadence and the melodic line of his country: the sounds of the church, of the town meeting, of the farm, of the Fourth of July, of the fledgling American way of entertainment. These are in fact the original American lieder, but they don't have that official, mannered court melancholy of European song. They are instead astonishingly, vitally pictorial. They have the boisterous wilderness in them, and a great freshness untamed by European form. We can hear the raw planks of the American musical theatre being cut here, and we can feel Stephen Foster's long reach into the twentieth century. Stephen Foster is Ray Charles singing "America". Stephen Foster is Berlin and the Gershwins. Stephen Foster is American.

Mason and Ungar, who have arranged the music here and who perform most of it, are traditional music specialists of enormous talent and sensitivity. Ungar is perhaps best known for his composition Ashokan Farewell, used as the theme for the recent public television series, The Civil War. Mason, former guitarist on Minnesota Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion, is additionally responsible for the presence of that puckish baritone of the Great North Woods, Garrison Keillor, backing up Hampson on "Hard Times".

Thomas Hampson's voice is truly inspired vehicle for these songs, and the opposite is also true: these songs are a truly inspired vehicle for this man's voice. Listening to some of them, it's occasionally hard to believe that we are in fact in this century; it's as if some industrious but wacky engineers with a DAT machine and a time-travel device succeeded in sneaking back to a Fourth of July celebration on a village green in 1855, where there was famous baritone booked to sing these songs. Thomas Hampson has a magnificent canopy in his voice — his voiced spreads gloriously — it is secure, dappled, soaring canopy of the big elm on that village green. Thomas Hampson's voice is filled, and fills, with Stephen Foster's essential message. Things are spanking new, and powerful, and more than a little frightening. What we hear is our country becoming itself.
— Guy Martin

Stephen Foster did it the American way. He started writing with them as a young man while working for his older brother, and he saw an opportunity. So he rented himself an office and simply announced that he'd gone into business as a songwriter. The fact that he was the first American composer to do this and succeed probably never occurred to him.

For a figure so clearly chiseled in the pantheon of American culture, Stephen Collins Foster turns out to be an elusive and haunting man. He was born, as fate would have it, on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of American independence and the day both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died—the baby in a large and relatively well-to-do family that lived in what is now Pittsburgh, Pa. A talent for music was recognized early. The Foster family was neither thrilled nor dismayed by this discovery, but they are believed to have subsidized the publication of his first song—"Open Thy Lattice, Love"—in 1844. The unprecedented accomplishment and success that quickly followed surprised almost everyone.

"He's the trunk of the tree of American music," Thomas Hampson said of Foster, while he was recording these songs. And the sense of continuity in Stephen Foster's music, the singer found while researching these songs, leads to some "wonderful beginnings."

"I started finding out what a basic foundation of American music—and, certainly, music of the 19th century, both from the Old World and the New World—there was and is in Stephen Foster. There's the beginnings of popular song, the beginnings of jazz melodies. Certainly folk tunes, folk tales, folk poems. And the texts: Foster wrote most of the poems himself…the texts are almost—well, in some cases, they're even more important than the music."

Hampson said he was fascinated by Foster's great attraction to Thomas Moore's book of Irish melodies, popular in early 19th century both here and in Europe (where Hector Berlioz set some of the poems in Moore's collection). Foster's response was to create a distinctively American song. The singer found a telling different in that.

"It's not American lieder…it's American song. I think you can call it quite simply American and song. Certainly it's a tremendous, natural, American sentiment. But it's also a universal, human sentiment…it's relevance is in its universality."

For Jay Ungar—the violinist whose feeling for the music of Foster's period helped shape these performances—the songs link themselves to the timeless, artless human impulse to make music, to sing.

"This music is about 140 years old now," Ungar said of Foster's songs, "but it still speaks to me very much. I'm a melody player, and so the tunes, the music—even without the lyrics—affect me greatly. I feel they're connected with some very ancient traditions that I feel close to. And the words of most of the songs are very applicable to today's conditions.

Yet when Stephen Foster died in New York in 1864 after an accident, at the age of 37, his worth was by no means clear to himself or virtually anyone else. His good fortune had collapsed. He was drinking heavily. His wife had walked out on him. A naive business sense had left him penniless. America was, indeed, singing his songs, but Americans didn't really know who he was. An early business deal had allowed minstrel impresario E.P. Christy, creator of the popular Christy's Minstrels, to premiere and even claim authorship for Foster's songs. By the time Foster began to seek recognition for his remarkable work—not to mention, need the recognition (and money)—his audience was slow to respond.

The publication of "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" in 1854, for instance, met with complete indifference. The singers in Christy's Minstrels dismissed the song as unattractive, and it never caught on with the public. After Foster's death, his attentive brother Morrison was quiet on the subject of the song, which he apparently believed could be read as a plea for reconciliation to the composer's wife., Jane Denny McDonnell Foster, who was called Jenny.

Though it is one of the high points of Foster's work, "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" would wait decades to find its audience. A popular outdoor drama about Foster's life made notable use of the song in the 1930's. And a 1940 movie about Foster's life (Swanee River, with Don Ameche playing Foster) drew more attention to it. The same year, with radio networks seeking songs in the public domain after a contract lapsed with ASCAP, "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" improbably became the hit it probably should have been almost a century before.

"Hard Times Come Again No More" was published in 1955. The title could be an allusion to the Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times. But the song certainly caught on with the public because of an ongoing depression and the lyrics' sympathy with the arduous day-to-day existence most Americans were living.

Women figure prominently, usually wistfully, in most of Foster's poetic songs. "The Voice of Bygone Days" (1850) may summon the memory of Mary Keller, a beautiful girl Foster knew who had died in 1846.

Stephen Foster wrote around 135 minstrel songs, which were sometimes called "Ethiopian songs" because they were rendered in comic patterns based on African-American speech. Though legend suggests he was strongly influenced by African-Americans and their music, the relationship was more a matter of style. Foster used the inflections of black people, part of the comic style of minstrel shows, but the sentiments he had them sing come directly from the Anglo-Irish folk tradition. The melodies, which bore the same kinds of folk influences, were original. They were among Foster's biggest hits, and they are heard here in spirited instrumental arrangements.

Molly Mason, the guitarist who collaborates with Jay Ungar in these performances, realized that she knew many of Foster's songs simply as dance music. Like most Americans, Mason and Hampson found themselves rediscovering melodies they've known since childhood while recording these songs.

"A lot of Foster's music has lived in the consciousness of people," Mason said, "even when they aren't really aware of where it came from."

The first instrumental group heard here includes three such indefatigable Foster favorites—"Ring, Ring the Banjo", "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races".

Though Stephen Foster's first known composition was "The Tioga Waltz"—"written" in 1841 and notated by Morrison Foster after his brother's death—the song "Open Thy Lattice, Love" was the first music published under Stephen Foster's name. His rapt, poetic style was already clear, though the lyric was taken from a poem by George P. Morris.

"Beautiful Dreamer" is the consummate Foster love song, written the year he died and published posthumously, with great success. The lyric pleads with an unusual, weary tenderness, set to a sublime, almost weightless melody that embodies the work "lilting". It remains one of Foster's most popular songs, a favorite of great singers. The composer's own musical abilities have been the subject of speculation, though he was known to possess "a sweet, gentle baritone". It would seem to haunt Thomas Hampson's melting performance of "Beautiful Dreamer".

Foster was a Pennsylvania native who ventured into the South only once in his life—a riverboat trip to New Orleans, in the wake of his first sustained success. So it isn't surprising that his sympathies during the Civil War were with the North. (Others in his family, including Morrison Foster, bitterly disagreed with him.) "That's What's the Matter" (1862) is a comically forthright blast at the South and its sympathizers.

Despite Foster's distant relationship with the South, two of his "home and hearth" songs became official Southern state songs—"Old Folks at Home" (1851) for Florida, and "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night" (1853) for Kentucky. The unforgettable melodies, both from the most fertile and successful period of Foster's life, are heard here in instrumental arrangements.

"Molly! Do You Love Me?" (1850) could well be a veiled entreaty to Jane McDonnell, in the hlpe that she would marry the composer, which she did that year. A daughter was born in 1851, but the marriage didn't last five years.

Foster's melancholy nature marked his love songs, which generally either beheld women in a kind of wistful awe or pined for them in their inevitable absence. "Sweetly She Sleeps, My Alice Fair" (1851) is suffused with the same quiet ecstacy of "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair", in fact, the Alice in question also has beautiful tresses.

Only once did Foster deal directly in a song with the agony of alcoholism which had begun to plague him. "Comrades, Fill No Glass for Me" (1855) was written at the time the temperance movement had begun to gain strength. But the song is a private, desperate appeal from a man who is begging his drinking companions to let him abstain. It prefigures the moral lessons of later Victorian ballads, with its longing to "quell the strife".

The Mississippi River was a lifeline for the nation in Foster's day, and many of his songs reflect the excitement of life on the river. "Nelly Bly", The Glendy Burk" and "Angeline Baker" were popular favorites, heard here virtually as they would have been played by dance orchestras of the day, where Foster's music was immensely popular.

Late in his career, Foster collaborated with a clever New Yorker named George Cooper, who wrote the lyrics for the comic song "My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman" (1863). Cooper had the ability to raise Foster's spirits, though his biting sense of humor would seem to clash with Foster's innate sentimentality. This song is a tribute to Cooper's influence, since it's unlikely Foster himself would have written such a facetious, humorous poem about a woman.

Between 1855 and 1858, the years following the failure of his marriage, Foster wrote sparingly. Every one of his inspirations dealt with loss and death. "The Village Maiden", "I See Her Still In My Dreams" and "Where Has Lula Gone?" all seemed to mirror Foster's heartbreak. A classic of the period is "Gentle Annie" (1856).

Foster probably did not have a sophisticated musical education, despite his brother's solemn assertions to the contrary. But his awareness of European forms is clear in some of his songs. "Linger in Blissful Repose" (1858) has the same beautifully subtle marriage of words and rhythm that carries "Beautiful Dreamer".

"Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway" (1850) is a classic from Foster's lovestruck days before his marriage. Dedicated to the 16-year old daughter of an old family friend, the song ponders the fleeting bloom of innocence, of beauty, of happiness. The melody is one of Foster's loveliest, and even a little harmonically adventurous.

"What I want people to hear and do with this music," Hampson said, "is simply enjoy it. I mean really bathe in it, let it permeate. Because it is our music. It is our sentiment, our expression…the opportunity to, in your mind, go into the attic and look through a photo album. That is the mission of song. The beauty of song."

The irony of Stephen Foster's short turbulent life is that he created something extraordinary from a cultural wilderness. His songs are neither folk songs nor art songs, but a synthesis. With a lively spirit all their own, they seek to fold the art song's concentrated refinement and poetic depth into the folk song's common identity and its immediate appeal. You might say that Foster, in doing so, invented pop music. He lived an American dream that surpassed his expectations and broke his heart. What matters is that he gave it all wings of song.
—David Foil