Stephen Foster Reconsidered

The Pops join forces with Rosanne Cash, Over the Rhine and other artists to celebrate “American Originals”

Jan 21, 2015 at 10:55 am
click to enlarge Cincinnati Pops Orchestra Conductor John Morris Russell
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra Conductor John Morris Russell


his weekend the Cincinnati Pops pays tribute to the music of Stephen Foster and other songs rooted in the American experience with “American Originals,” performed by veteran and emerging Roots musicians. Grammy Award-winner Rosanne Cash will be joined by Over the Rhine, Dom Flemons (founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), Joe Henry, Aoife O’Donovan and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars.

In 1846, Stephen Foster, a 20-year-old college dropout from Pittsburgh, began working as a bookkeeper for his brother’s shipping company on Front Street near Cincinnati’s Public Landing. That was his day job; when he wasn’t keeping “neat and elegant” columns, Foster was honing his skills as a songwriter. 

He had penned several tunes with little success. But on Sept. 11, 1847, “Oh! Susanna” received its premiere at a Pittsburgh concert hall, and within months it was heard in New York and Philadelphia and became the anthem of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Three years later, he returned to Pittsburgh determined to write songs for a living — a career choice unheard of in 19th century America.

Today, Foster is acknowledged as “The Father of American Music,” the country’s first popular songwriter whose body of more than 200 songs continues to be an influence crossing genres. “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home” (better known as “Swanee River”), “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “Beautiful Dreamer” have all passed into the realm of American classics.

Despite those lovely ballads, many of Foster’s songs echo the unapologetic racism that depicted enslaved blacks as banjo pickers or figures of devoted servitude, proclaiming their sentiments in language that played to white audiences’ stereotypes of blacks. “Gwine to Run All Night,” better known as “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and even “My Old Kentucky Home” are among the major offenders.

And yet, Foster has transcended even offensive language and is now acknowledged as an American master. He was not the first to write for American audiences, but his music and lyrics captured the popular imagination as no other artist had. He inspired musicians from Scott Joplin to Gershwin and Bob Dylan. It’s safe to say that Foster wrote the first chapter of The Great American Songbook.

The American Originals concerts have a dual purpose, according to Pops conductor John Morris Russell. “First, people familiar with Foster’s music may not know these artists, and the younger generation of music lovers may not know Stephen Foster,” he says. “And second, the concerts are being recorded for release some time next year.”

In Pittsburgh, Foster studied music with a classically trained teacher. An equally powerful influence was Dan Rice, an entertainer who wrote minstrel songs. By the time Foster arrived in Cincinnati, he was well on his way to creating a uniquely American sound.

Foster’s time in Cincinnati may have been brief but it exposed him to the music mash-up heard on the streets, saloons and parlors in the 1840s. Sentimental, crudely funny and occasionally profound, his songs resonated across lines of class and culture.

“The music experience of Cincinnati is the music experience of America, and it starts with Stephen Foster,” Russell says.

“When coal came from the mountains, mountain music came with it. Celtic sounds came, too,” he says. “The riverboats from the Deep South brought black American music — spirituals, work songs and what later became Gospel. Foster was the first to bring all these threads together.”

Although never an astute businessman, Foster had a sense for the prevailing markets, writing sentimental ballads suitable for family music-making and, more notoriously, for blackface minstrel companies. He was a Northerner writing songs about a South he visited only once and he was well aware of Cincinnati’s openly racist treatment of its black citizens. And that’s where performances of Foster songs can be troublesome.

His knowledge of black Americans was based on racist stereotypes depicted in the press and in minstrel shows. He invented his own version of black dialects, interspersing the N-word and “darkie” throughout many of his best-known songs. The second verse of “Oh! Susanna” is never performed today but it was known to be a source of hilarity for its first audiences. In his 1998 book, Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, Ken Emerson discusses “Oh! Susanna” at length, pointing out that the verses refer to steam engines, telegraphs and railroads, symbols of rapid and often frightening change.

Russell acknowledges that those are the lyrics, as he describes, “that peel the paper off the wall,” but he points to what he calls Foster’s increasing sense of humanity, particularly in a song written during the composer’s Cincinnati years, “Nelly Was a Lady.” The lyrics — again, invented black dialect — lament the death of the singer’s wife, “my dark Virginny bride.”

“It was the first time an African-American woman had been called a lady in popular culture,” Russell says. “Foster was humanizing people who were dehumanized by slavery and segregation.”

Not everyone liked the idea. Emerson notes that one writer changed the dead woman’s name to Jessie and reverted to white English.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Foster was an abolitionist. In fact, he was more concerned with cashing in on the wave of patriotism during the Mexican-American War.

“We’ve expunged things that would be deemed offensive,” Russell says. “On the other hand, we need to remember that this was a great humanist who acknowledged people who had been pushed aside.”

Rosanne Cash will sing three numbers, including “My Old Kentucky Home,” one of Foster’s most iconic songs, which also carries a delicious irony for 21st century audiences. When asked about the word changes, Cash said, via phone: “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home/‘Tis summer, the people are gay.” She began cracking up as she recited the last two words. “I was thinking maybe I should fudge that word so that people don’t laugh. It’s a sad song full of longing and now it’s a little incongruous.”

Language aside, those themes of sadness and longing echo throughout Cash’s catalog, particularly in her latest release The River & The Thread, recently nominated for three Grammy Awards. Speaking to the Cincinnati Symphony’s Fanfare publication, Cash said, “I think I draw inspiration from Foster in a very long and slightly convoluted line but tracing things back to him makes sense to me.”

Cash’s own lyrics probe the depths of American experience: family, leaving home, death and roads to unknown destinations. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the opening cut on River, is a long way from “Old Folks at Home,” but that sense of endless wandering and connection to home goes right back to Foster.

In her elegiac memoir Composed, Cash writes, “I have charted my life through not only the songs I’ve composed but the songs I’ve discovered, the songs that have been given to me, the songs that are part of my legacy and ancestry.” Foster was in the mix.

All of this weekend’s performers represent the continuity of Roots music, but Cash is more of a direct descendant. Cash says she grew up hearing Foster’s songs, not surprising for the daughter of Johnny Cash and stepdaughter of June Carter. “I’ve always known that Stephen Foster wrote these songs,” she says. “He’s so important to the American Song Book, to who we are.”

One Foster song made it to the now legendary list of songs Johnny Cash gave his daughter. “ ‘Hard Times’ is on the list and it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, in my opinion,” she says. “I can see the connection to Woody Guthrie and even Dylan [who recorded it in 1992]. There’s a spiritual DNA line there, and you can see that Guthrie listened to Foster.”

“Hard Times Come Again No More” is a remarkable song, a rare instance of Foster giving voice to social concerns. It’s also quintessentially American. Written in 1854, it became an anthem during and after the Civil War.

“Can you imagine ‘Hard Times’ in any other culture?” Cash asks. “It was so heartbreaking, it was the perfect song to be co-opted during the Civil War.”

It’s also a signature tune for Over the Rhine, who will perform it at the concerts.

Foster also produced the occasional comic oddity like, “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache.” Maestro Russell discovered an even more obscure number, “Don’t Bet Your Money on the Shanghai.”

“If you don’t know what it’s about, it sounds like Dr. Seuss,” he says. “The subject is cock fighting, and the Shanghai is a complete loser.”

“The vernacular he was writing was of his time, so you can’t compare him to a modern writer like Dylan,” Cash says of Foster’s lyric-writing skills. But with an easy laugh, she contradicts herself. “And yet, some of those songs are specific, like ‘Beautiful Dreamer,’ and if you told me Johnny Mercer wrote it, I’d believe you.”

So, should Foster’s songs be considered Roots music? Cash says yes, without hesitation. “This music is so bound up in who I am and what I do that it’s hard to step outside to give it definition,” she says. “In some ways, I feel that part of the definition has to do with pain and longing and travel. With Country and Appalachian music, there’s the connection to Celtic songs, which are full of suffering and loss, that makes total sense to me.”

“Then the Blues and Southern Gospel are rooted in the pain of slavery,” she adds. “It’s not about hookups, breakups and romance. There’s much wider territory: family, death, travel, slavery. When you talk about American Roots music, there’s so much that grew out of Stephen Foster’s work. And his work is rooted in what I think is beyond Folk tradition. It is Folk.”

Foster’s music is crossover in the truest sense. The ballads are mainstays for Classical, Rock and Bluegrass artists, and “Hard Times Come Again No More” has been covered most recently by Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Mary J. Blige and The Chieftains. This weekend, Foster gets the Pops’ full court press.

The program includes music not written by Foster, including “Aura Lee,” “Kumbaya” and “Amazing Grace.” Russell and his team of arrangers have created unique treatments of each song and, for Cash, this weekend marks her second time performing with an orchestra.

“Yeah, first there’s terror,” she says. “Then I talk myself off the ledge. I can do this.”

“When you miss a cue with a Rock band, they just vamp till you come back in. The orchestra doesn’t really do that. You have to do it or get screwed,” she adds, laughing.

In addition to “My Old Kentucky Home,” Cash will sing “Beautiful Dreamer” and “I Still Miss Someone,” written by her father in 1958.  She says she’s looking forward to hearing the orchestral treatments.

“Two of my songs from Black Cadillac were arranged for voice and chamber trio by Mark O’Connor, a superb violinist, and they’re so great to perform,” she says. “The colors change and this beautiful, sensitive feeling comes over the songs.”

This weekend will also be a reunion for Cash and many of the other performers. Singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry is a close friend who collaborated with Cash on songwriting and recording projects.

“I’m thrilled he’s going to be here,” Cash says. “I can’t wait to share a glass of wine with him after the first show and say, ‘We did it!’ ”

“I’m a huge fan of Over the Rhine and I love Dom Flemons’ work,” she adds. “It’s going to be amazing.”

Foster left Cincinnati in early 1850. He died in 1864 in New York City, abandoned by his wife Jane (“Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”) and destitute. Those were the bad old days before the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers or any kind of enforceable copyright laws — as many as 16 different publishers produced 30 arrangements of Foster’s songs without him earning a cent.

Foster’s statue in Alms Park seems more informed by “Hard Times Come Again No More” than by the jaunty rhythm of “Oh! Susanna” — the face is careworn, the shoulders slumped.

But the music is alive and this weekend’s concerts will demonstrate the reasons for its survival. Good music is good music, and so much of Foster’s work continues to sing to us. “He sang of simple joy and pathos to all the world,” reads the inscription on a plaque on the Guilford School building downtown, the site of Foster’s boarding house.

As composer and lyricist Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker last year, “A hundred and fifty years later, the songs are right there, impossible to ignore or forget, as powerful and poisonous and seductive as ever.”

AMERICAN ORIGINALS will be onstage Friday-Sunday at Music Hall.

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