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Songs of Yesterday: Stephen Collins Foster, Part 2 - I Dream of Jeanie

The television program "I Dream of Jeannie" stole its title from the immortal song "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," by Stephen Foster; the first line of which goes "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair." Yet few can sing from memory the next, and subsequent lines. Who was Jeanie? What is her story and was her hair really light brown? Here we look a little deeper into this 1854 work of Foster.


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Many believe that just hearing a song can take a person back to a time and place earlier in his or her life. I subscribe to that belief: music is a powerful tool. It can soothe the soul, raise one to anger, and bring back a memory (good or bad). This would have to be the case with me and the immortal song by Stephen Foster: "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" or otherwise called "I Dream of Jeanie." From my earliest remembrance, I have despised the name "Jeanie" (as it refers to me, not any one of the numerous Jeanies I have known). My brother used that as a teasing tool; my classmates sang Foster's song to me for the same purpose. And it didn't help that, indeed, I had (and still have, I'm pleased to report) light brown hair. Just hearing the song brings forth a flood of unpleasant memories.

That said, I recognize that Foster's song conjures up much more pleasant thoughts for many others. I am happy for them. And I will, therefore, address this piece (doing it first in my series of Foster song analyses to get it out of the way).

What I find interesting about this song is that, while many (many, many) people have serenaded me with "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair . . .," no one (that I can remember) ever sang anything beyond that. Quick, without peeking, what is the next line? Ha! I'll bet very few, if any, of those reading this can supply it. Okay, I'll help: "Borne like a zephyr on the summer air." Probably not what my school chums used for the follow-up (though, thankfully, I do not remember their versions). Here is a song that is considered one of Foster's popular pieces, yet few remember (by heart) any of the words beyond the first line. Noted musicologist, Pete Seeger, mentions that "only a handful" of the songs Foster wrote carried on with lives of their own. But, sad though it may be, that is not uncommon for a songsmith. When we look at what has survived Foster, I would venture to say that "successful" would describe his career as a composer (even though the success was not completely realized before his untimely death in 1864).

The song of the infamous Jeanie was written nearly a decade before the writer's death. For whom was it penned? Who was Jeanie and why was the singer resigned to just dream of her (instead of rushing to her side)? Let's first look at the whole of the lyrics, as one would find them today (say, in an Internet search):

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,

Borne like a zephyr on the summer air,

I see her tripping where the bright streams play,

Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.

Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour,

Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o'er;

Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,

Floating like a vapor on the soft summer air.

I long for Jeanie with the gay dawn smile,

Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile,

I hear her melodies like joys gone by,

Sighing round my heart - o'er the fond hopes that die.

Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,

Wailing for the lost one that comes not again;

Oh! I long for Jeanie and my heart bows low,

Never more to find her where the bright waters flow.

I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed

Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;

Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown,

Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.

Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore

While her gentle fingers will cull them no more:

Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair,

Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.

It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that Jeanie is no longer accessible (in this life). The object of the singer's affections has passed away, though how is not made clear. Initially, Foster's notes show that the subject of the song was "Jennie," the nickname that he used for his wife, Jane (who was very much alive at the time). However, Jennie, though not dead, had left Stephen the year before the song bearing her name was published. Perhaps it was the "dead" relationship that Foster was mourning in his song about the ethereal Jeanie. It is also worth mentioning that the original scribblings in Foster's notes used the words "snowy fingers" instead of the published "gentle fingers" (did he wish her dead, or am I looking too closely?). Was her hair really light brown? Well, reports say it was more reddish or auburn in color, but that might not have created effective rhymes ("I dream of Jeanie with sort of auburn hair" - I doubt it would have caught on).

Foster may have been able to assuage his broken heart some with the writing of the song about the dreamer who could no longer be with his beloved, "departed" Jeanie, but it did little to fill his coffers. While many of Foster's songs made it to the "hit parade," "Jeanie" was left behind; that is, until the 1940s. Foster's love song from 1854, now in the public domain and not under the control of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), got airplay. While radio broadcasters were boycotting ASCAP products (due to the excessive royalty rates leveled against the broadcasters), they sought more recordings of music that were no longer subject to copyright. Enter "Jeanie" (copyright had run out about 1882) and a new-found recognition of Stephen Foster products. If only he had been able to hold out almost 100 years, surely the song would have netted him more than the original profit he made (sold in a package with two other popular pieces for a total of $1,872.28 in about 1859).

While parodies of the song, along with its use as the title of not one but two television programs about the life of Stephen Foster, keep bringing the mournful ballad into the forefront, it is safe to say that "Jeanie" is not remembered as a primary Foster work today (i.e., among those born in the last, say, fifty years). Other songs (some of which will be discussed in the upcoming months) are far more recognizable (unless your name happens to be Jean or Jeanie), at least in the area of memorable lyrics (beyond the first line). Just for the fun of it, ask your friends if they know the title of the song that contains the lines "Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour, Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o'er" and see what happens. Then try it with, say, "don't you cry for me, I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee" and see what the response is.

Current popularity notwithstanding, did your ancestors sing "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"? If we are talking about people alive between the mid-1850s and the mid-1900s, my guess is that they did (or at least were exposed to it). As for me, I continue to file it under the "not in my repertoire" folder and hope that, when people break into song about my name it is either "Go Home with Bonnie Jean" from Brigadoon or "Jean" from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

References for the above material:

American Songbook, The: Over 130 American Favorites! New York: Charles Hansen Educational Sheet Music & Books, 1975.

Emerson, Ken. Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Pop Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. "'I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' Poem by Stephen Foster, accessed 17 February 2012, from

Seeger, Pete. The Incompleat Folksinger. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Wikipedia. "Stephen Foster," accessed 17 February 2012, from

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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