Fostering Musical Talent


Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, by Ken Emerson – I believe Beth purchased this biography of the songwriter at a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, some years ago. I decided to read it when my holds at the library were taking a long time to arrive. Foster is definitely one the most prominent songwriters in American history, and was one of the first people to support himself through the sale of sheet music, although some bad deals made his financial situation rather unsteady. His songs included “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and the one people know as “Way Down on the Swanee River” that’s actually called “Baba O’Reilly.”

It’s actually called “Old Folks at Home,” and originally mentioned the Pee Dee River in the Carolinas rather than the Suwanee in Florida. The author is stuck with addressing the racism in many of Foster’s songs. His earliest popular works were minstrel songs written in dialect to be performed in blackface; and while he later tried to get away from that, the need for money kept him coming back to it. I’m sure American children today still know “Oh! Susanna,” but they likely don’t know the second verse with its lines, “I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river/Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred”…well, you can probably guess the next word. Emerson suggests that Foster eventually became more sympathetic to black Americans and less racist than others in the same field. While he was from Pittsburgh, his family was pretty staunchly Democrat at a time when that meant pro-slavery. It seems like every modern biographer has to make a case for how any beloved historical figure who did racist work wasn’t AS racist as they could have been, which might not be saying all that much. Then again, you can’t totally blame people for sharing the same prejudices as the society in which they were raised. It’s a very thorny subject, so I’ll drop it for now and instead give you this:

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This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music, Prejudice, Stan Freberg and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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