Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Music Man; 140 Years after His Death, Stephen Foster -- Who Never Even Saw the Suwannee River He Made Famous -- Remains as Popular as Ever

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Music Man; 140 Years after His Death, Stephen Foster -- Who Never Even Saw the Suwannee River He Made Famous -- Remains as Popular as Ever

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Bull, The Times-Union

We all know the songs of Stephen Foster. We may not know all the words, but we know the tunes. We may not even realize how many are actually his.

It's not just Old Folks at Home, which we know as Suwannee River, Florida's state song. There's Old Kentucky Home, which happens to be that state's official song and the sentimental beginning to every Kentucky Derby. Then, there's Beautiful Dreamer, Camptown Races, Oh! Susanna. And Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair and Old Black Joe.

So many of Foster's songs are part of the American canon, instantly recognizable more than 150 years after they were written.

But realize also that Foster was America's first professional songwriter, the first who actually tried to make a living at writing songs. And that he was one of the first songwriters to accord basic human dignity to African-Americans.

That was a lot to cram into his 37 years, writing not only some of America's most popular music, but perhaps the world's most popular music.

Tuesday is the 140th anniversary of Stephen Foster's death, an event commemorated at various spots around the country. At the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, on the banks of Suwannee River in White Springs, they're celebrating Foster today with a concert of his music.

Foster was born on July 4, 1826, just outside Pittsburgh. That's a significant day in American history: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died that day.

He moved to Cincinnati to work as a bookkeeper before returning to Pittsburgh. And, no, he never saw the Suwannee River. His original draft of the song used South Carolina's Pee Dee River. But that was crossed out and replaced with "Swanee."

Kathryn Haines, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for American Music, which houses Foster's archives, said Foster traveled down the Mississippi River to Louisiana once, but never made it to Florida.

Foster died in New York in 1864, after what has been called an unhappy life. He was an alcoholic. He married Jane McDowell (nicknamed Jeanie, she of the light brown hair), but it wasn't a close marriage, and they often lived apart. A recent biography suggested that Foster was gay.

But still there was the music, the more than 200 songs he wrote. One was discovered, for the first time, a decade ago in an attic in Pittsburgh.

According to Dale Cockrell, professor of musicology and American and Southern studies at Vanderbilt University, Foster is the most-performed composer in the world.

"And it's important to realize," Cockrell said, "that Foster, more than anyone else, has transcended national boundaries."

Some years back, Cockrell was at the College of William and Mary, and he was asked to lecture about Foster to a group of visiting Chinese scholars, to introduce them to that most American music.

"I put on a tape," he said, "it may have been Old Folks at Home, and they all started singing. Same with Old Kentucky Home. They know the songs in China. They've heard it on the steamboats on the Yellow River. That's also the case in Japan. They know Stephen Foster, and they sing him in Japanese. I lived and taught for a while in South Africa where I heard Stephen Foster songs sung in Zulu."

Steven Saunders, associate professor at Colby College in Maine and editor of The Complete Works of Stephen Collins Foster, said that Foster remains a giant in American popular music.

"If you think of the composers that people recognize 10 tunes by," Saunders said, "you've got Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. But Foster was the only one for the 100 years before that."

And the interest doesn't appear to be fading. In the past five or six years, Foster's Hard Times Come No More, for example, has found new popularity with recordings from a variety of performers, from Bob Dylan to Jacksonville's own New Traditionals. …

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