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New tribute album reconnects songwriter prototype Stephen Foster with his songs

New tribute album reconnects songwriter prototype Stephen Foster with his songs

Beautiful Dreamer—The Songs of Stephen Foster

Various artists

(Emergent Music)

In the liner notes to the Stephen Foster tribute record Beautiful Dreamer, executive producer Tamara Saviano recalls a conversation she had with Joe Ely. The Texas singer-songwriter, who isn't a household name but has legions of fans, remarked that a publisher who "didn't know what to do with it" had rejected his novel. "Give me the damn book," Saviano thought, "I know what to do with it!"

Stephen Foster should have had Saviano in his corner 140 years ago. The consummate American songwriter—his songs are as familiar as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or "Paul Revere's Ride"—Foster died a penniless alcoholic, unable to capitalize on his talent despite being fixed in the popular imagination. Appropriately, Beautiful Dreamer is the project undertaken by Saviano's American Roots Publishing imprint, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting vital yet underappreciated American artists.

Having signed a publishing deal at the age of 22, Foster quit his day job to become a full-time songwriter, a "career move" unheard of in preindustrial America. As a purveyor, as opposed to a performer, of songs whose success hinged on fickle song publishers and the (sheet) music-buying public, Foster virtually invented the role of the popular songwriter. His then-disreputable career alienated him from his family and pushed him to society's margins. His shocking decline has a familiar ring; unable to maintain the success of his early years, Foster drank heavily, sold his famous catalog for a pittance and died forgotten at age 37.

Like many songwriters, Foster was a complex personality. He wrote about antebellum life, yet was a Northerner who'd never spent much time in the South. Though he pined musically for his wife, Jane—"Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair"—he remained estranged from her for most of their married life. Racially, too, Foster appears to have been conflicted. His biggest hits—plantation melodies like "Camptown Races," "Oh, Susanna" and "Old Folks at Home"—were written in racist dialect for blackface minstrel shows, but, with careful reading, they often yield a sympathetic view. The fourth verse of "Ring, Ring, de Banjo," for example, advocates insurrection: "On de banjo tapping, I come wid dulcem strain / Massa fall a napping—he'll never wake again."

It may be that the songwriters and artists featured on Beautiful Dreamer see a bit of themselves in Foster's discordant fate. In any case, their mixed bag of contributions proves his versatility, timelessness and uncanny knack for turning a phrase. Most recognizable are the well-known plantation ballads, which appear on Beautiful Dreamer in a variety of styles. The Duhks, from Winnipeg, do an Afro-folk version of "Camptown Races." Honky-tonker David Ball renders "Old Folks at Home" as traditional country, while John Prine gently fingerpicks "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight" and Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson remake "Oh, Susannah" as slapdash alt-country.

Blackface songs were Foster's stock-in-trade, but he turned to composing military anthems and parlor ballads in hopes of gaining a more genteel audience. Because of their overt sentimentality, these songs are not considered Foster's best work and are often ignored. Yet the songs from this period that appear on Beautiful Dreamer reveal the dark side of Foster's songwriting and are among the album's most poignant tracks.

Folk singer Judith Edelman's hymn-like rendering of "No One to Love," for example, aches with the loneliness of Foster's depreciating life: "No one to love! / No one to love! / What have you done in this beautiful world / That you're sighing of no one to love?" Likewise, the narrator of "Comrades Fill No Glass For Me," sung plaintively by Ron Sexsmith, regrets his reliance on "liquid flame": "For if I drank, the toast should be / To blighted fortune, health and fame."

In Foster's time, writers of poetry and prose and their publishers had a protocol, an established way of doing business that stood a chance of being equitable. As the first, it seems, of his kind, Foster the songwriter had no such set of rules: the music industry of his day just didn't know what to do with him. Additionally, Foster so thoroughly captured the American identity that most people believe his famous works to be traditional songs of unknown origin; in the end, his name is rarely associated with the songs he wrote. Because the performances on Beautiful Dreamer reconnect Foster with the American songwriting tradition he cultivated and to which he might have given birth, it takes a big step toward correcting that oversight.


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