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ELDER MUSIC: Songs of Stephen Foster

Posted Nov 04 2012 8:30am

PeterTibbles75x75 This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here .


Stephen Foster

category_bug_eldermusic Stephen Foster was the first of the songwriters in the modern sense of the term. There were obviously people who wrote songs throughout history but he was the first to perform that role as a profession, to make a living out of it.

Well, a bit of a living. Due to the limited music copyright and composer royalties at the time, he saw little return for his efforts. Several publishers would print copies of his songs and not pay him anything.

Stephen Foster was born on the 4th of July 1826, near Pittsburgh, the ninth of ten children. He didn’t like school much and he was mostly home-taught where he read voraciously and he learnt piano from a classical pianist.

At age 20, he became a bookkeeper for his brother’s business in Cincinnati. It was there that he wrote his first successful songs. He later returned to Pennsylvania and contracted to write songs for the Christie Minstrels.

Many of these were in the tradition of black-face minstrelsy but he claimed to write songs to raise the standard of those songs rather than the rather trashy vehicles that was the norm at the time.

He moved to New York around 1860, and his fortunes plummeted which prompted him to write many more songs from which he again received very little remuneration.

In his impoverished state he lived in a cheap hotel in the Bowery in New York and developed a fever. One day he slipped and hit his head. It took three hours to get him to hospital and he died three days later aged 37.

Here are ten of the several hundred songs he wrote.

One of his earliest songs was Oh Susanna and JAMES TAYLOR does the honors on this one.

James Taylor

James himself is a noted songwriter but he very occasionally performs other people’s songs. This is one of those times.

On this track, LINDA RONSTADT has the help of Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Linda Ronstadt

I listened to this song with the McGarrigles singing their harmony and I thought, “Oh that’s nice,” and then Linda comes in and kicks it up another gear. What a great singer she is. This is Gentle Annie.

For some reason the DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET recorded Camptown Races twice on the album “Gone With the Wind” - that’s the original album, not a rereleased version with bonus tracks as often happens.

Dave Brubeck

I think it’s best that this is an instrumental version of the song. We are spared all those doo dahs. Besides it’s nice and short. This is the second version of the tune from that album.

SAM COOKE can sing anything and make it sound sublime, even an old chestnut like this one.

Sam Cooke

I guess it’s only a chestnut because it’s been around for so long and just about everyone has sung it at one time or another. If you want to hear some more of Sam either play some of your CDs as I do or alternately you can go here for a past column on the gentleman.

Here Sam performs I Dream Of Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair.

If that one put you to sleep, this will certainly wake you with a start. Here is JOHNNY O’KEEFE showing what an Aussie rock and roller did with one of Stephen’s songs back in the late fifties.

Johnny O'Keefe

It’s the least traditional version of one of his songs we have today but we need some contrast and boy, does Johnny offer that. We are way down on the old Swanee River.

Stephen Foster

A song without words. Well, the song actually does have words, it’s just that this version doesn’t. It’s My Wife is a Most Knowing Woman and some of the words are as follows:

My wife is a most knowing woman,
She always is finding me out,
She never will hear explanations
But instantly puts me to rout,
There’s no use to try to deceive her,
If out with my friends, night or day,
In the most inconceivable manner
She tells where I’ve been right away.

(and so on – it goes on like this for five verses)

You can almost sing along to it the first time you hear it, so evocative is the tune. Unfortunately, I have no idea who is playing on this track.

PAUL ROBESON is a towering figure, both literally and figuratively, in 20th century music.

Paul Robeson

Besides being a singer, he was an actor, a lawyer and played football at the top level. Unfortunately, the American government persecuted him for years because he espoused views they didn’t like. They took away his passport so he couldn’t travel thus reducing his income considerably.

Fortunately, we still have his music on record and anything he sings he makes his own including My Old Kentucky Home.

VAN MORRISON sings a duet with LINDA GAIL LEWIS. I use duet in its largest sense as they both seem to go off on their own at times. Also, it certainly sounds as if Linda’s father had a hand in the arrangement of the song, for her father is Jerry Lee Lewis. Just listen to that piano playing.

Van Morrison

Old Black Joe is often referred to rather condescendingly as a debasing minstrel song. However, W.E.B. Dubois, for one, disagreed saying it stood apart from that tradition and the song’s “soft melancholy” and “elusive undertones” made it close to a spiritual.

I don’t know if Van’s version could be described as soft or elusive. Hear for yourself.

Speaking of piano playing, there’s no indication in the liner notes of the CD who plays the instrument on this track but it sure sounds to me like Floyd Cramer, the greatest pianist in country music. The track, however, is from ROY ORBISON.

Roy Orbison

Like Sam Cooke, Roy can make any old song sound great. This isn’t any old song though, it’s Beautiful Dreamer.

I’ve kept this one till the last because how could anyone follow it? There are many versions of this song, but MAVIS STAPLES is the pick of the bunch by a long way.

Mavis Staples

Mavis, of course, first saw the musical light in the family business, the Staple Singers, a gospel group created by her father Pop Staples. Before that, she went to Paul Robeson High School so there are connections throughout these performers.

Mavis went solo in the late sixties, although it took some time for her to become a success on her own. These days she’s one of the great singers of the world. Here she sings Hard Times Come Again No More.

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