The first time I can remember that I paid much attention to a song by Stephen Foster was while listening to a James Taylor album.
Tucked into the last track on side 2 of the 1970 LP Sweet Baby James, is a really wonderful, acoustic guitar and vocals rendition of “Oh! Susanna.” It is pure James Taylor, done with a sense of both playfulness and deep respect for this American classic. I loved this recording as a high school student and to this day, listening to it never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Five years later, after college, I again “discovered” the songs of Stephen Foster. While getting ready for the first day of my first year as an elementary school music teacher, I came upon a tattered, paper songbook entitled Collection of Stephen C. Foster Songs in a drawer of the classroom’s large and well-worn wooden desk.
Published in 1937 by the Belmont Music Co. of Chicago, Illinois, it contained (actually: contains – I am looking at it as I write this post) 25 songs, each in a one-page, piano-lyrics-guitar chords arrangement. There were songs I recognized: “Oh Susanna,” “De Camptown Races,” “Old Folks At Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home” and some I didn’t: “Nelly Was A Lady,” “Gentle Annie” and “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming.”
In those days and in the years since, I have taught and performed several Stephen Foster songs. My favorites have been “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Folks At Home” and “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I have also learned much about the man who wrote these incredible songs.
Stephen Collins Foster was born on July 4, 1826 in Lawrenceville, PA. He was the seventh child of William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Foster.
Stephen Foster is regarded as America’s first professional songwriter. The date of the first public performance of his first “hit” song – “Oh! Susanna,” on September 11, 1847 – is seen by some as the birth date of American Popular Music.
In 1844, “Open The Lattice Love” had become Stephen Foster’s first published song. He wrote continuously throughout his career and, in 1863, the year before his death, he published a total of 49 songs.
In Stephen Foster’s time, a songwriter made his money through the sales of sheet music. (Also in those days, many middle and upper class homes had pianos. Many people could read music and play the piano and an evening spent gathered around the keyboard in the parlor singing the latest numbers was a popular form of family entertainment.) To get a publisher interested in producing sheet music for a song, the songwriter had to find someone to perform the song in public and thus generate interest and demand for its publication.
For a songwriter looking to showcase a song, the most accessible type of public entertainment was the very popular minstrel show, with its now-infamous, blackfaced performers. “Minstrel songs” combined the perceived dialect of 19th century African-Americans with an attractive and catchy melody. Songwriters also found that if they added a strong dose of sentimentality to the lyrics of a minstrel show song, the resulting number was even more appealing for those in-house, ’round the piano singing sessions. These songs became known as “parlor songs.”
Stephen Foster wrote masterfully in both genres and had much to offer the late-18oo’s sheet-music buying audience. But during the mid-to-late 20th century, because of their original language and use, some felt that the songs of Stephen Foster should be dismissed and forgotten altogether.
Over the same decades, though, given the undeniable quality of Stephen Foster’s music, songbook publishers gradually “up-dated” his lyrics. “They” eliminated the glaring racism (an aspect which even Foster became increasingly uncomfortable with during his career) and converted them into songs that can now be proudly passed from generation to generation and revered as the timeless masterworks they are.
Back in January, 2010, during Hope For Haiti, the star-studded, fund-raising telethon/concert broadcast after the earthquake, R&B singer Mary J. Blige followed Bruce Springsteen’s offering of “We Shall Overcome” with a contemporary, heartfelt and soaring rendition of the even-more-appropriate “Hard Times Come Again No More.” As I watched and listened to Ms. Blige as she sang: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor,” I imagined Stephen Foster smiling. He wrote those words and that song in 1855, inspired by the distress and economic hardship of the poor in and around where he lived in Pittsburg, PA.
Stephen Foster Collins passed away on January 18, 1864.
For your listening pleasure, click on the link below to hear a recording of a fingerstyle guitar arrangement of “Old Folks At Home” that I put together from the transcription in that 1937 songbook and inspired by James Taylor’s fingerpicked introduction to his version of “Oh! Susanna.”
“Old Folks At Home” Guitar & Arrangement by: Eric Sinclair.