Monday, November 9, 2009

Stephen Foster

You know how I listen to Sirius radio's classical pops station? Well, from time to time the station airs a piano arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie." This arrangement floats and sticks to the simple style of American songs from the mid-1800s. It brings to mind the lush green of an Appalachian valley, the romantic innocence of country lovers, and the grief the lonely boy feels when his lover dies and is buried in the cold ground. Inevitably, someone must die in order to have a song as sentimental and sorrowful as "Gentle Annie."

I set out to find the sheet music for this piano arrangement, and I searched everywhere. I bought one book I thought was what I had been looking for, but it turned out to be schmaltzy 1970s arrangements of music from 150 years ago. A bad style combination. Then I found a song book with original editions of thirty Foster songs, "song book" meaning the melody is in the voice line. I was disappointed, but I have given up on finding the instrumental piece I have heard on the radio. I have now settled for humming through these old classic songs, and I have been shocked. My 21st-century sensitivities have been bruised and shaken after reading through these lyrics. I had no idea what Stephen Foster was all about and thought I was just buying some sentimental music–you know, like "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer," "My Old Kentucky Home."

In the 1800s, there were popular minstrel songs called Ethiopian songs, so called because white performers sang them in black face while shuffling their feet and pretending to be dim witted. It was their way of laughing at a festering sore that plagued the country—slavery and the impending divisions the practice caused. It turns out Foster was a premier writer of Ethiopian songs complete with degrading dialect and doltish emotions. Here are some lines from "Massa's In De Cold Ground":

Massa made de darkeys love him
cayse he was so kind
Now dey sadly weep above him,
mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow
cayse de teardrops flow.
I try to drive away my sorrow
pickin' on de old banjo.

I can't bring myself to sing that song, and now that I know more about the songwriter, I have trouble singing anything he has written. I read online that Foster tried to add dignity to this genre of music by eventually leaving out the artificial dialect and calling the music Plantation Songs, as if that helps. Some people might argue the need to put someone like Foster in the context of his era. He was a man of his times. But I have never understood that way of justifying bad behavior and wrong thinking. At some point, someone has to speak out and push the crowd beyond their times.

To Foster's credit not all of his songs were written to mock the slaves and free blacks in America. "If You've Only Got A Moustache" seems to be written for just about any race.

Oh! All of you poor single men
don't ever give up in despair,
for there's always a chance while there's life
to capture the hearts of the fair.
No matter what may be your age,
You always may cut a fine dash,
You will suit all the girls to a hair
if you've only got a moustache, a moustache, a moustache.

Well, I am no longer set on finding instrumental music of Stephen Foster, but while I've got the book open, you might as well hear a bit of "Gentle Annie." This stuff is way above my range, so I have had to take it down an octave. Linda Ronstadt has done a much better job, but she's not here.

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