Way Down upon the Hudson River
We have been singing his songs for more than 150 years – “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Old Folks at Home,” the one we called “Swanee” – with not much thought about who created them, for they seem to have sprung into life spontaneously, like folk songs. The appeal of the songs has been so broad and so enduring that their composer has faded into the folk tradition, where the facts of one’s real life pale before the legend, as they do for John Henry, Casey Jones, Johnny Appleseed, or Babe Ruth.
Those of us who thought we knew a thing or two about Stephen Collins Foster (1826 – 1864) regarded him as an impractical dreamer; an untutored country boy with a lucky gift for melody; a naif who permitted publishers to pirate his songs and others to take credit for their composition; a spendthrift alcoholic who died with 38 cents to his name; a racist or at least a highly effective publicist for the South’s peculiar institution. All of these things prove, upon examination, to possess elements of truth without being true, and thus leave us no better prepared than the folk tradition to understand Foster’s life as an artist.
In fact, Foster came from the outskirts of Pittsburgh, spent some formative years in Cincinnati and his last years in New York, and never living in the Deep South. He hit upon “Swanee,” a river that started in Georgia and ran through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, as a two-syllable alternative to “Pedee” and “Yazoo,” the earlier names he and his brother had plucked from an atlas. He never saw the Swanee, before or after composing the song. Given his rhythmic requirements, Foster might as well have chosen “Hudson,” and with more reason, as it was the current of the music industry, centered in New York (and to a lesser extent Boston, Baltimore, and Cincinnati) that determined his voyage of life. And Monongahela had too many beats.
Foster had little formal schooling but was no untrained country bumpkin, having been exposed to Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber at home or in one-on-one instruction. When he composed “negro songs” for his friends in Pittsburgh in the mid-1840s it was for his own amusement and theirs; he was liberal in drafting duplicates of his compositions, and even made copies for members of visiting musical troupes. This practice led to the rampant piracy of “Oh! Susanna,” which was copyrighted without Foster’s name in New York many months before a Cincinnati publisher issued it in 1848 (again without credit, though Foster may have been paid) in a collection called Songs of the Sable Harmonist. Was Foster naive or clever? Consider that he may have seen the need to make a name for himself, and that a minstrel-show composer without a show might be a long shot to launch a career in field in which no American was as yet fully employed.
The music industry before Foster was centered on performers, theater owners, and publishers of sheet music, whose income was provided largely by foreign composers because their copyrights were not recognized in the U.S. Performers and venue owners could make a living, but Foster became America’s first professional composer, a man who neither performed nor solicited students. Furthermore, Foster crafted his own contracts – the first in the business – that provided for royalties and vested copyright in the composer unless he deemed it advantageous to sell his song outright. He also evaluated the future sales potential of his “catalogue” and sold songs if the sums that publishers offered came close to matching his projections.
He was no rube, no bumpkin. He was a pioneer. If he died in the gutter it is because that is where almost all solo acts end up in America, whether you’re a prizefighter, performer, painter, or composer. Classical scholar Moses Finley wrote something in The World of Odysseus that resonates across the millennia for Foster and for all sole entrepreneurs. “A thes [an unattached propertyless laborer who works for hire], not a slave, was the lowest creature on earth that Achilles could think of. The terrible thing about a thes was his lack of attachment, his not belonging. The authoritarian household, the oikos [from which is derived, via the Latin form oecus, the word “economy”] , was the center around which life was organized ... a thes was no part of an oikos, and in this respect even a slave was better off.”
So if we are wrong about Foster’s business sense, might we also be wrong about the music? The musicologists see links from “Oh, Susanna!”and “Jump Jim Crow” to “After the Ball” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” and thence to “West End Blues,” “Rocket 88,” and “Born in the USA.” But if Foster is merely a progenitor and a link (black to white, rhythmic to harmonic, etc.), then we are trivializing him just as we reduce the real genius of Louis Armstrong in making him a springboard to Elvis and Chuck Berry and Outkast. In recent years Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris have recorded fine new interpretations of Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” one of the composer’s favorites (and mine) that paled in popularity before “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and the plantation songs. And there is a recent, somewhat startling, baroque rendition of Foster by countertenor Jeffrey Dooley and harpsichordist Kathryn Cok. It is as if confronting Foster head-on were taboo, that no one today would be willing to make the leap of historical imagination required to hear the music as it was played in its year of composition. Must we “modernize” Shakespeare, or Donne? Are remakes of 1930s movies superior because they have modern backdrops and are rendered in wide-screen color? Don’t get me started.
Indigenous American music before 1840 is very nearly an oxymoron, as airs were “borrowed” from across the pond for everything from our national anthem to sentimental ballads like “Annie Laurie” or “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” Foster’s genius was to jump on the success of the new (as of 1843) minstrel show, to absorb the sounds and patter along the banks of the Ohio River (he worked as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati in 1846-50), and to write songs that folks instantly recognized as American. Even when in later years he shifted from “Ethiopian” melodies to gorgeously harmonic ballads, his songs continued to reflect a longing for home and the past that was sweeping the newly urbanized and industrialized nation. As John Tasker Howard, Foster’s biographer, wrote: “While the minstrel shows helped to produce Stephen Foster by providing a market for his songs, they were also a medium which Stephen himself reformed. He found their songs crude, vulgar ditties which struck the popular fancy, and he made into a folk-literature something that had reeked of the alley and the barroom. Foster’s songs are full of the spirit of the pioneers, full of the carefree impertinence that snaps it fingers at fate and the universe. Unconsciously, and without any attempt to be a nationalist, Stephen Foster wrote into his songs the subtle traits that characterize Americans.”
Because the lyrics of Foster’s plantation songs are often marked by dialect that people of all colors find offensive today (“All de world am sad and dreary,/ Ebry where I roam...”), it is an easy matter to call Foster a racist and Confederate sympathizer, even though Frederick Douglass commended his characterizations of black people. Similarly, today Dan Emmett’s is seen as a racist vestige akin to flying the stars and bars at an NAACP meeting, no matter that the song was Lincoln’s favorite and was sung by both sides in the Civil War, as was Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” The chord that Foster and Emmett both struck was not love of slavery but love of home, a home and a way of life that seemed beyond recapture.
The only verse of “Dixie” ever to be censored was this original first stanza, regarded as blasphemous:
Dis worl’ was made in jiss six days,
Yet our noses wrinkle today at “I wish I was in de land ob cotton,/ Old times dar am not forgotten.” I think it is a gift to be able to place oneself backin 1859,when the song was composed, and listen with old ears to this “walk-around” in the “git-up-and-git style.”
Birchet “Kit” Clarke, America’s first famous press agent, told this story in a letter to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1893: “About the middle of June, 1863 ... I do not remember the exact date ... Stephen Collins Foster, Daniel Decatur Emmett and myself were seated in what had been the Collamore house, corner of Broadway and Spring street, New York talking over ... war matters in general. Presently we heard music and, stepping to the window, saw a brigade of boys in blue coming down Broadway, journeying to the front, led by a band, playing, ‘I wish I was in Dixie.’”
“‘Your song,’ said Emmett.
“‘Yes,’ answered Foster.
“And there stood I, a beardless young man, between the parents of the two most popular songs this country has produced, waiting impatiently to seize my diary and fasten the incident and the words of the moment.”
Foster died in the following year, striking his head against the sink in the Bowery room where, broke and despondent, he was lodging. A third attempt at reconciliation with his wife and child had failed and they had returned to the Pittsburgh area, leaving him to write a song a week in his last year, all of which were sold for cash; he knew he would not be around to collect royalties. The song first published after his death, “Beautiful Dreamer,” is today his most popular of all.