Wednesday, September 15, 2010

S. C. Foster: Outstanding Pennsylvanians 4

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) has been called "the father of American music." He has also been called "the American Franz Schubert," comparing him to the great Austrian composer who is renowned for his songs. Foster's work and career are significant enough to be honored at the Stephen Foster Memorial Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh--Pittsburgh being the city with which he is most associated. (He was actually born in Lawrenceville, PA--on July 4, no less.)
If this makes him seem"veddy classical", well, that would be all right with a lot of us. And Foster did write songs concert singers like to sing, like "Beautiful Dreamer", "Open Thy Lattice, Love," and "I Dream Of Jeannie."
But he also wrote many songs almost all of us know, like the evergreen "Oh, Susannah."
Foster was a popular song writer who ground out songs--carefully crafted pieces at that--in quantity. Yet we probably do not hear as much of his music as we once did.
That would be because of the social circumstances in which he lived his brief, 37-year life. Stephen Collins Foster was born, lived, and died in pre-Civil War America. Much of his life was lived in places--Pittsburgh, Cincinnati in Ohio--where the South of slave owners and the North, relatively free of and opposed to the institution--came together.
To make matters worse, one of the most popular forms of entertainment of his time was the blackface minstrel show, where slaves and other blacks often were held up to ridicule and contempt.
Foster wrote songs for such performances--but with a difference. He was a friend of the distinguished abolitionist editor and writer Charles Shiras, and is said to have made it a cause to uplift the level of civility and sympathy displayed in the minstrel shows.
But his texts, of course, remain on paper. Since I am among the many ex-school children who have sung Foster songs, I can tell you there is really only kindness in songs like "My Old Kentucky Home", and even the shockingly titled (for our time) "Old Black Joe".
Poor Foster. He was no racist--far from it. What he may need is a new lyricist for his wonderful tunes.
A good place to learn more about Stephen Collins Foster is the University of Pittsburgh site at amerimus/foster.htm

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