STEPHEN FOSTER - America's First Great Songwriter

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed the songs of Stephen Foster and yesterday, because I hadn’t heard it in ages, I played this CD in my car as I drove through the Hurtwood to Cranleigh for the weekly farmers’ market. There’s 18 tracks in all and I particularly like John Prine’s folksy reading of ‘My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight’ and Roger McGuinn’s jangly Byrds-style arrangement of ‘Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair’. Other Foster songs on the CD with which most people are probably familiar include ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)’ and ‘Oh! Susannah’, given a ragtime treatment by Michelle Shocked. Foster is reckoned to have written over 200 songs before he died, penniless, in 1864. 

        I have long believed that Foster is the source of American popular music, the first great American songwriter to draw together musical traditions brought to America by those who arrived from Europe, Africa and elsewhere. In his sleeve notes to this CD, the US musicologist Ken Emerson calls Foster the trunk of the tree of American music.  “You can hear Foster in nearly all its branches, from country, bluegrass and gospel through the American Songbook, jazz, rock’n’roll and the classical music of Gottschalk and Ives,” he writes, adding, correctly, “There’s even a trace of ‘Camptown Races’ in ‘Jingle Bells’.” Randy Newman, for one, would surely agree; doubtless also Paul McCartney who takes the lead vocal on a rocked up version of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ by The Beatles that is featured on the second of their Beatles at the BBC compilations. 

        Emerson is the author of Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and The Rise of American Popular Culture, which I can recommend to anyone with an interest in where it all began. It catalogues the unhappy life of the first man to ever try to make a living as a professional songwriter, a hopeless objective in the days before copyright was invented. He sold his songs for a few dollars and spent the proceeds on booze. 

        It all began for me, and here I must make a confession, with the first album by the George Mitchell Minstrels, aka The Black And White Minstrels who, until the arrival of The Beatles, were by far the most successful recording act in the UK. In November 1960 their first LP began an unprecedented 142-week residency on the UK LP charts, peaking at number one five times. The only LPs to better this chart longevity up to this point were American, the soundtracks to three musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, The King And I and South Pacific. Elvis, Cliff and the rest barely got a look in as far as chart statistics go. 

        This is not something much talked about today. In Electric Shock, his comprehensive study of the history of popular music, Peter Doggett gives them only a cursory mention and ignores these massive-selling records completely. They don’t make the Concise Edition of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, but they’re in the exhaustive 12-volume edition, not as the B&W Minstrels but under George Mitchell, their musical director. Larkin bravely awards their first two, best-selling, albums, both acquired by my dad, with four stars out of five, and Stephen Foster rightly merits an entry in that edition too. “There was a remarkable quality of durability about Foster’s livelier pieces which rose above their questionable quality minstrel show origins,” writes Larkin. “They remain a significant milestone in the development of popular song in nineteenth century America.

        I say bravely because the B&W Minstrels were and are an embarrassment today, and rightly so; men darkening their faces to look like coloured folk, prancing around on TV and the stage in imitation of the minstrelsy shows that were popular in America during the first half of the 19th Century. The BBC somehow failed to realise the offence this would have caused to people of colour. Neither, for that matter, did the 16 million who watched their weekly TV programmes and broke box office records at their stage shows. 

        Nevertheless, it’s still possible to listen to these records and momentarily forget the way they looked and the clothes they wore. They feature a series of medleys of largely American popular music from Foster’s era up to around 1950, song after song arranged by Mitchel to segue together seamlessly. They are arranged and produced to the highest level of professionalism, the soloists and chorus in perfect harmony over no fewer than 56 songs on the first LP and 51 on the second. This is why Larkin gives them four stars. 

        I can’t find any documentation of how many LPs the B&W Minstrels sold but it must be in the millions – their second LP spent over year on the charts too – but the first two languish in my record collection, heirlooms handed down along with a few other LPs my parents owned, among them two by genuine black performers, Ella Fitzgerald and Winifred Atwell. Both the B&W Minstrels albums are packed with Foster’s songs and it was listening to them on these records, back in 1960 and 1961, that introduced me to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘Oh! Susannah’ and all the rest 

        I have't listened to these two LPs for years now. For all their professionalism, they sound a bit cheesy, a bit light entertainment, a bit end of pier. I much prefer the CD I listened to yesterday, and, to a lesser extent, one other I’ve had for a while, pictured below, which features performers from an earlier era, like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. One Amazon review of that says, “Bought this for my 89-year-old grandfather. He loved it.”

    Whatever else, all this proves something I've always believed in, that the very best popular music lives forever. 


Keith Carley said...

Thank you for this album tip. I manage to find the renditions through Google and will listen to them soon. However, I'm a bit perplexed about one line in your post.

- "“There’s even a trace of ‘Camptown Races’ in ‘Jungle Bells’.”" - Is this a Foster song about Africans, or did you exchange a "I" for an "U"?

Keep up the good work.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Hi Keith
That was a typo, and a rather unfortunate one at that in the light of the subject matter. I have now corrected it. Thank you for pointing it out.

Musopedia said...

My parents loved them, even then I knew how bad it was - especially when the face make up would run, when they got a bit sweaty. If Foster had been alive when the TV and albums started to come out he would surely have slapped an injunction on Mr Mitchell?