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Songs of Yesterday: The Appeal of Stephen Collins Foster

Stephen Foster was a major influence on American music, and how those of other countries viewed American life. His simple melodies have been borrowed by various groups to carry their own lyrics. While his words may not be politically correct by today's standards, his compositions continue to live on. This introduction to Stephen Foster prefaces a series of articles on some of his works, to be presented in GenWeekly in 2012.


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"I come from Alabama with my _______ on my knee, I'm goin' to Lou'siana, my _____ ______ for to see. It rained all _______ the day I left, the weather it was _____, The sun so hot I ______ to death, Susanna, don't you cry."

Can you fill in the blanks? I'll bet you can! And you've been able to for most of your life. Stephen Foster songs are part of our heritage, uniquely American and reliable as sing-a-longs at family gatherings, around campfires, or in the car on the family vacation. Foster's melodies have also carried a number of songs, written by various groups. The Mormon pioneers loved to adapt his melodies: the "Mormon Doo-Dah" song, also known as "Johnston's Army" - taken from "Camptown Races" - and "Brighter Days in Store" - taken from "Hard Times Come Again no More" - are perfect examples; others include "Zack, the Mormon Engineer" and "The Missionaries Handcart Song," both using the melody for "Oh! Susanna" (above). The gold seekers in California also created a version of "Oh! Susanna," calling it "The 49ers' Oh Susanna" and sang of having "gone to California with my washpan (the pan used to wash dirt from the gold, not clothes) on my knee."

Stephen Collins Foster was born on 4 July 1826. Maybe that was a foreshadowing to the impact he would have on 19th Century American music (bleeding into the 20th and 21st Centuries). Born into a patriotic family (Stephen's father William had served in the War of 1812 and was a delegate to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives), cannon-fire greeted the newborn on his arrival to the Pittsburgh home (a local July 4th tradition, not one that greeted all newborn infants or those born to the Foster family, for which Stephen made the seventh offspring). Pittsburgh was to be Foster's home for most of his life, in spite of his fond lyrics about growing up in Kentucky or singing of time spent in Alabama and Louisiana. He rarely ventured that far south.

Stephen Foster's appeal was particularly evident during the last years of his life (he died 13 January 1864) when the Civil War was raging. People, inundated with songs of the war, were weary of it all by those last years and Stephen Foster songs told of gentler times and peaceful living (though he did pen a couple of war-based ballads, they never made it to "the charts" of the day). So, for many, Foster's songs provided an escape from the harsh realities of the War and families torn apart (literally and figuratively).

Today we continue to use Foster's songs to lighten our spirits and join in song. I'll bet most of your ancestors (if raised in the United States) sang those same songs. Think of that the next time you join in on "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," "Old Black Joe," "My Old Kentucky Home," or (my least favorite) "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair": you are probably singing something that your grandmother sang (or, perhaps, it was she who taught it to you!). Another way to connect to our forebears.

In the coming months we will investigate more closely the songs and stories behind the lyrics of Foster's music, his influence on American culture, and how he (figuratively) made it across the ocean because of his music.

I grew up singing "Camptown Races" and had no idea I was belting out lyrics about horse racing. What is funny is that that particular song was on an old vinyl 78-rpm, breakable record that my grandfather owned. He would spin it for me whenever I asked. But his was a pious household and my grandmother wielded a heavy Bible when it came to discussing or (horrors) singing about topics that were frowned upon in a good Christian home. Looking back, I cannot understand why she permitted such music, unless she understood less about horse racing than I did. Or maybe it was because Stephen Foster music was welcome almost anywhere in those days. Today: not the case.

Foster wrote of the simpler times, yes, but they were also times where inequality was the norm and words we would consider derogatory today were commonplace wherever you went. The radio programs were not permitted to use "cuss words" but could use the "N" word without a problem. Today, we hear the former on prime time television but the latter is generally "bleeped." I am not suggesting that this is a bad idea, it was just a different time and different values. Some of the songs I will discuss, then, will use the terminology of the day . . . the terms our ancestors used, without apology. Foster's songs, today, are severely edited or censored.

For more information on Stephen Foster, his songs and his life, check out "Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture," by Ken Emerson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, from which much of the above information was obtained) or one of the many websites such as The Music of Stephen Foster (where you can download MP3 files of his many, many songs) or The PBS program on his life (where you can learn about his influence on American Culture) or just Google "Stephen Foster" and see what pops up!

Our investigation into Stephen Foster songs will, hopefully, bring you a little closer to your family's past generations that used these songs to entertain in their homes, parks, band shells, reunions, etc. And maybe you'll be inspired to pick up an instrument and play some of the simple melodies yourself; or at least get some of the recordings available that keep Foster's music alive for us and future generations to enjoy.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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