The Enduring Songs of America’s First Songwriter, Stephen Foster

July 9, 2021 Updated: July 9, 2021

Composer George M. Cohan bragged in a song that he was “born on the Fourth of July,” though in truth he missed that date by 24 hours. His most illustrious predecessor, however, was indeed born on that date in 1826. Stephen Foster, the USA’s first popular songwriter, and by most standards the first professional popular songwriter the world has known, was as American as his birthday.

Noncancelable?

So it is surprising that, except for the removal of a Stephen Foster statue in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, little has been done to “cancel” him. And how would one go about canceling songs woven into the very fabric of American life—songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home”?

To cancel Foster, one would have to scour the films and recordings of the last century and do some serious scrubbing. “Beautiful Dreamer” alone has been recorded by singers as disparate as Bing Crosby and Jerry Lee Lewis, and its luxuriant strains show up in the films “Gone With the Wind,” “Picnic,” “Shane,” “Duel in the Sun” and, unlikely as it seems, the 1989 “Batman.”

In other words, practicalities are against ridding American music of Stephen Foster, no matter how many woke folk might object to him. That’s lucky for us, because it means we get to keep the folksy strains of “Old Folks at Home,” known as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” and the decidedly un-folksy measures of what is arguably one of the 10 or 20 most perfect songs ever written, “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.”

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Stephen Foster wrote the wistful “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” for his estranged wife. (Public Domain)

The Music Matches the Lyrics

“Jeanie,” according to music professor Kurt Poterack, in Christendom College’s publication Principles,  “approaches the level of a Schubert art song.” Its spacious, arching melody prompted no less than Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Ned Rorem to shape his own arrangement, a version of “Jeanie” sung by classical singers side-by-side with those Schubert lieder referenced by Poterack.

The song’s music emulates its lyrics, which concern the beauty of a young woman’s hair floating “on the summer breeze.” The range is wide and airy—and octave and a fourth—and from note to note, the melody moves as if buoyed by the very breeze of the lyrics. The release or bridge, starting on the words “Many were the wild notes” and ending with “that warbled them o’er,” takes the listener to a new place, both musically and lyrically, leading to a fresh return of the main melody but with a twist at the end, known as an “extension.” Foster used it to take the tune to its highest pitch, magically underlining the words “floating like a vapor.”

Tellingly, it is Foster’s most personal song, written in 1854 for his estranged wife. (The two never reconciled, and Foster died alone.)

Most of his output was written for commercial use, often by the Christy Minstrels, a popular blackface show of the 1840s and 1850s. Blackface is now, understandably, condemned as racist in its mockery of African-American slave culture. But Foster’s songs transcend their origins. The so-called woke would call them “cultural appropriation,” but are they appropriation, or elevation?

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American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster (1826–1864). Engraving by unknown artist from Harper’s Monthly Magazine printed in 1880. (Stocksnapper/Shutterstock)

A Feeling for ‘The Other’

The statue removed in Pennsylvania showed Foster next to and slightly above the figure of a black slave with a banjo. The woke saw this and thought, “white superiority.” The truly awake might rather think, “lifting up.” Foster visited the South only once, during his honeymoon, but a natural empathy compelled him to represent a people who had no representation in the outside world. Foster came from an abolitionist family, and his “My Old Kentucky Home” is explicitly antislavery.

Critical theorists complain that white culture lacks regard for “The Other,” yet this is precisely what Foster’s “blackface” songs such as “Camptown Races” contain: a regard for the enslaved and the disenfranchised, embodied by stylized musical expression.

Foster’s nonblackface songs, the best-known of which are “Jeanie” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” presage the popular love songs of coming eras. Before Foster, songs came either from the classical tradition or the world of “folk” music. Foster, though, was paid to write, making his songs the headwaters of modern popular music.

Alas, for him, the lack of intellectual property laws meant that his songs were easily and lawfully pirated. Foster died not only alone but also in poverty.

It might be argued that the artist’s job is to express an eternal truth in the particular mode of his time and place. Foster did exactly that, turning the feeling of hopeless love into “Beautiful Dreamer” or the urge to travel into “Oh! Susanna,” his first hit in 1848 and a song that became the unofficial anthem of the California Gold Rush. No matter how many statues are removed, Stephen Foster’s songs will never be canceled.

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He is the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).