Known as the "father of American music," Stephen Foster made his living by selling his sheet music in the days before records and radio. During his career, Foster penned over 200 tunes, including the lyrics for "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home."
But many of Foster's musical lyrics often contained hateful racial ideas. Some of Foster's songs, like the ones written in black dialect to be performed in black face, are "a source of racial embarrassment and infuriation," says Ken Emerson.
Emerson, a music historian, is the author of a Foster biography, Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster And The Rise Of American Popular Culture. He also edited a new compilation of lyrics penned by Foster and his contemporaries, entitled Stephen Foster & Co.
In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross, Emerson explained Foster's importance to the history of popular song and also why his songs continue to resonate more than 150 years after he wrote them.
"I think that Stephen Foster really did create popular music as we still recognize it today, and he did it because he took together all these strands of the American experience," Emerson said. "And he consciously or -- it was hard to talk about the degree of consciousness -- but he clearly, effectively merged [other ethnic genres] into a single music. And I think he merged them in a way that appeals to the multicultural mongrel experience of America in its history and culture."
Emerson also points out that many of Foster's songs were more sophisticated than he had originally imagined.
"There's one song he wrote, for instance, ["The Glendy Burk"] which deliberately quotes two measures of Schubert and then quotes two measures of a Robert Burns Scottish ballad, so that you have sort of a Scottish [sound] and a German [sound] you know, spliced," Emerson explains. "And that kind of wit and craft is something that people didn't realize Foster possessed when we used to think of him as sort of this naive folk poet with his finger on the pulse of the American soul, in a sort of a salt-of-the-earth way. He was a much more conscious writer who didn't just compose his songs. He contrived them."
This interview was originally broadcast on June 17, 1997
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Stephen Foster was perhaps the first full-time professional songwriter. He made a living on sheet music sales. This was back in the infancy of pop music in the 19th century, before the days of records and radio.
Foster's role as one of the fathers of pop music is one reason why rock critic Ken Emerson wrote a biography of Stephen Foster back in 1997. Now, he's collected Foster's lyrics in the new book "Stephen Foster & Co." It includes Foster's most popular songs like "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Way Down Upon the Swanee River," and "Beautiful Dreamer," as well as more obscure songs.
As we'll hear, Emerson is fascinated by the complicated racial meaning of Foster's songs. Some of his songs are written in black dialect for blackface minstrels and are now considered embarrassments like "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground" and "Old Black Joe."
I spoke with Emerson when his biography of Foster, "Doo-dah!" was published. He wanted to start with a recording of Foster's song "Old Folks at Home" performed by Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers. Here's why.
Mr. KEN EMERSON (Music Critic and Author): It's particularly interesting because obviously, Louis Armstrong did not want to sing this song. And as you hear it, after a brilliant trumpet solo, you'll hear increasingly caustic comments in his inimitable voice. And it shows some of the ways in which Stephen Foster's music, to this day, is a source of racial embarrassment and infuriation.
At the same time, the Mills Brothers are singing this in a very straightforward way. They have no problems with the material and indeed, it's very sentimental and nostalgic. And they do not trip over the word darkie, which obviously is no longer a word that any of us would care to use; it doesnt give them any offense.
The double nature of this song shows the sort of divided legacy of Stephen Foster, who after all, wrote the most famous songs of the 19th century that's written by an American, that still, in many ways, define American culture. And we have this dual, double divided feeling about the music that is exemplified in this recording.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers.
(Soundbite of song, "Old Folks at Home")
THE MILLS BROTHERS (Singing Group): (Singing) Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away, far away. There's where my heart is turning ever. There's where the old folks stay. All up and down the whole creation, sadly I roam, still longing for the old plantation and for the old folks at home.
All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam. Oh darkies, how my heart grows weary far from the old folks at home.
Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Musician): Now brothers, it was way down upon the Swanee River...
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Far, far away.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm, that's where my heart is turning ever.
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) That's where the old folks stay.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yowza. All up and down the whole creation.
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Sadly he roam.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know one thing? My heart is still longing for the old plantation.
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) And for the old folks at home.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Now sing, brothers.
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, man.
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Oh...
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh darkies, how my heart grows weary...
THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Far from the old folks at home.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, looka here, we are far away from home. Yeah, man.
GROSS: Well, Stephen Foster certainly had a very complicated relationship to African-Americans and African-American music. And I mean on the surface, boy, what a really hateful song the lyrics are. You know, sung from the point of view of an African-American yearning to be back on that old plantation.
On the other hand, as you point out in your book, Stephen Foster really drew a lot from black music and was inspired by black music. So at one time, his music both condescends to and is inspired by African-Americans.
Mr. EMERSON: It sounds like rock n' roll today, doesnt it?
GROSS: It was rock n' roll, you say, that connected you to Stephen Foster.
Mr. EMERSON: Well, I...
GROSS: Hard as that may be to believe.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EMERSON: Yeah. Well, I began my checkered career as a rock critic, and I was always fascinated from the beginning, when did the impulse among white teenagers to imitate blacks first begin? Obviously, from Elvis Presley to Beck, that has been an important part of rock n' roll, but clearly, it didnt begin with Elvis Presley. And I sort of pressed it back, and thought, and listened and learned more and more about the swing era and the Benny Goodman's and the other nice boys from the Jewish projects of Chicago who fell in love with swing.
And going back to the turn of the century, in songwriters such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, who were deeply influenced by African-American music and emulated it - not only in operas like in "Porgy and Bess," but in Irving Berlin's first hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which caused him to be mislabeled The King of Ragtime, when obviously Scott Joplin deserved that title. But it goes further back, to minstrelsy and blackface back in the 1830s and 1840s, and to Stephen Foster and this weird form of American popular entertainment, the first original American form of entertainment, that's the minstrel show.
GROSS: The whole blackface era is both a disturbing and fascinating part of American pop music history. What explanations have youve been able to come up with for why white people performed in blackface and why that became so popular in the 1800s?
Mr. EMERSON: Well, among other things, African-American represented, in a cruel paradox to many whites - and still do, a certain kind of freedom; freedom from bourgeois expectations, freedom from the regimentation of conventional middle-class life. But what many whites dont realize, and indeed, sometimes African-American dont realize, is that that alleged freedom is the result of oppression and exclusion.
So that we always have this, or I shouldnt say we, but at the root of both the rock n' roll experience and of the minstrel experience, which was its predecessor, is this tangled conflicted feeling of expressing both an oppression and an affectionate and an admiration simultaneously.
GROSS: Let's play another one of his famous songs from the Southern tradition he had no part of because he grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: This is a song called "Old Kentucky Home," one of his really well-known songs. Tell us about how he wrote this song.
Mr. EMERSON: Yeah. Well, this is a song that is very controversial to this day. It is the state song of Kentucky and we're going to play a version of it, which is performed nightly during the summer at the outdoor sound and light theater extravaganza that is held in Bardstown, Kentucky, at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
And the song, as we listen to it for a while, you'll see, sort of epitomizes the South of cavaliers and crinolines. And yet, ironically, it was actually inspired by "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a deeply abolitionist novel. And the sense of loss here, and the sense is because Uncle Tom is being sold down the river as he was in the famous novel. So we have here again, as in the earlier recording by Louis Armstrong, the sort of dual nature.
As a matter of fact, recently, several members of the - African-American members of the Yale Glee Club were scheduled to perform this song as part of a celebration - a concert celebrating Charles Ives and the context of his music. They refused to sing it. A copy of the song was burned at a meeting by members of the glee club, and indeed, another song was substituted.
And ironically, here is a song that was inspired by a great abolitionist novel, and which no less a leader then Frederick Douglass himself singled out as a song that awakens the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish. So, like all of Foster's music, it's thick with contradictions that, to this day, I think, are part of the American experience.
GROSS: Let's hear the version you've brought of "My Old Kentucky Home."
(Soundbite of song, "My Old Kentucky Home")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home. 'Tis summer, the children are gay; the corn top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom, while the birds make music all the day. The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, all merry, all happy, and bright. By and by, hard times comes a-knocking at the door, then my old Kentucky home, good night.
GROSS: You know, having heard "Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Folks at Home," you know, you wonder, what was Stephen Foster's attitude about slavery. He wrote these songs while there still was slavery in the United States.
Mr. EMERSON: He certainly did. He was, by inclination and by family, he was a Democrat. He was actually related by marriage to James Buchanan, who was the president before Abraham Lincoln, who was trying to hold together the Union at any cost and would make any deal necessary to keep the South in. Foster was, by inclination, what was then called a doughface Democrat. He was certainly not an abolitionist. And this again is not unlike the contradictions that many Americans feel.
On the one hand, his politics were definitely not abolitionist but his heart and his feelings were very strongly sympathetic with the African-American plight. This contradiction, I think, is - the conflict between sentimentality and self-interest is something that, I think, characterizes - has always characterized Americans.
GROSS: My guest is Ken Emerson. He's the author of a biography of Stephen Foster and has edited a new collection of Foster's lyrics called "Stephen Foster and Co."
We'll hear more of my interview with him after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Ken Emerson after the publication of his biography of the 19th-century songwriter, Stephen Foster. Emerson has edited a new collection of Foster's lyrics.
You brought a version with you of "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." Who did you bring singing it and what do you think of this recording?
Mr. EMERSON: Yeah, I think this is a very - an excellent recording. It's by the operatic baritone, Thomas Hampson, who was come out a couple of years ago with a CD of Foster's songs and has become a good friend and co-conspirator of mine. I think what may interest people with this is that it was originally "I Dream of Jenny with the Light Brown Hair." Jenny was the nickname of Stephen Foster's wife to whom - with whom he had an unhappy on-again marriage. And he wrote this when they were estranged, or - it's a little bit unclear - or possibly, just gotten back together again. And he wrote it when he was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he set up for about a year.
GROSS: Okay. Well, let's hear "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."
(Soundbite of song, "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair")
Mr. THOMAS HAMPSON (Singer): (Singing) I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair. Borne like a vapor 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.
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair. Floating like a vapor on the soft summer air.
GROSS: Ken Emerson, you know, I think that song is an example of a song that I think people of my generation were born knowing. You didnt necessarily like the song, but you knew the song. I dont know how you knew it, whether it's because your parents sang it or it was just in the air, but you knew it, even though it was not of your time. Why do you think songs like "Jeanie" have endured the way they have?
Mr. EMERSON: I think that Stephen Foster really did create popular music as we still recognize it today. He did it because he took together all these strands of the American experience. That song is extremely Irish in its origins, just as other songs are extremely African-American, just as others are extremely Italian and operatic, or sometimes German, and even Czechoslovakian. For instance, the beat of "Oh! Susanna" is the beat of a polka. He's clearly effectively merged them into a single music. And I think he merged them in way that appeals to the multicultural, mongrel experience of America in its history and culture.
GROSS: I know when I told a few people here that we were going to be talking to you about your Stephen Foster biography, I got a couple of real eye rolls like, ha, Stephen Foster - what, are they kidding? I can imagine the reaction you got from friends in the rock world when you told them your book was going to be about Stephen Foster.
Mr. EMERSON: Yeah. They thought I was taking leave of my senses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EMERSON: You know, it's hardly, I mean - but on the other hand, I think that we all have an interest. And I know that - I mean Greil Marcus talked to me about this a little bit when I undertook this, and the way that Greil and other serious students of rock n' roll - Bob Cristgau would be another example - all of us have been very interested in its origins and its roots.
Mr. EMERSON: I mean the way that we were taught that rock n' roll didnt exist until the 1950s, when suddenly in the person of Elvis Presley, rock - blues and country music joined together - that just doesnt work. The racial mixture and complexity of our music, this goes back far longer.
GROSS: Youve brought with you a record that I think will successfully bring together your interest in rock music and your interest in Stephen Foster. Do you want to introduce this for us?
Mr. EMERSON: Yes. Well, this is a song that actually was not a great hit during his time. But in the last decade it's been his most frequently recorded song. One reason I'm sure is because it's neither as saccharine as "Beautiful Dreamer" or "I Dream of Jeanie." On the other hand, it does not have blackface lyrics that are an embarrassment and an offense to today's ears. And that's "The Hard Times Come Again No More," which has been recorded recently by Emmylou Harris, by Bob Dylan; Thomas Hampson has recorded it, the McGarrigle Sisters, and I know that my favorite version is the least known of them all, and that's by the singer named Syd Straw. And this is a beautiful arrangement by Van Dyke Parks.
And the song I think became popular in the very late '80s when there was a momentary recession at the end of Bush's term, the recession that resulted in Bill Clinton's election. And it struck an economic nerve that I think is still touchy in our insecure society today, where even if the stock market is booming, we're all being downsized. So this is "Hard Times Come Again No More" by Syd Straw.
GROSS: And before we hear it, let me say to you, Ken, thank you very much for talking with us about your biography of Stephen Foster. And that biography is called "Doo-dah!" - the author Ken Emerson. Here's Syd Straw.
Mr. EMERSON: Oh, thank you very much.
(Soundbite of song, "Hard Times Come Again No More")
Ms. SYD STRAW (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor. There's a song that will linger forever in our ears. Oh, hard times, come again no more. It's the song and the sigh of the weary. Hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door. Oh, hard times, come again no more.
GROSS: Ken Emerson edited and annotated the new book "Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of America's First Great Popular Songs." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Our interview was recorded in 1997 after the publication of Emerson's biography of Stephen Foster, "Doo-dah!" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.