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Stephen Foster really did write songs the whole world sang

| Sunday, June 28, 2009

The building sits in the perpetual shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, wrought from Indiana limestone, punctuated by stained-glass windows designed by Charles J. Connick. Dedicated in 1937, it is passed every day by thousands of commuters and students who give it little, if any, thought.

Little do they know of the wonders inside the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum: notebooks, sketches and instruments used to craft the most notable songs from a country less than a century old. Deane L. Root, director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, calls the music of Stephen Foster the United State's first great cultural export to the rest of the world.

"He was America's first superstar," says Root, who is also the curator of the Foster memorial.

Born on the Fourth of July in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Foster wrote songs that are the bedrock of American music. From "Oh! Susanna" and "Beautiful Dreamer" to "Camptown Races" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," his work left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of all musicians who came after him..

"I am overwhelmed by what a great songwriter he is," says Ernie Hawkins, the blues musician from Point Breeze. "We take so much of what he did for granted. These songs are part of the air we breathe, and what do you take more for granted that• It's our skin."

Little-known celebrity

The man who wrote those songs is lesser known. An enigmatic figure with a singular devotion to songcraft, Foster began writing as a member of the Knights of the Square Table, an informal group he formed with his brother, Morrison, and a close friend, Charles Shiras, when he was a teenager. Foster wrote "Oh! Susanna" in this period, and published his first song, "Open Thy Lattice Love," when he was 18.

From then on, songwriting was the focus of his life.

"He would get very impatient with people who interrupted him," Root says. "He was notorious for having shouting fits if somebody tried to get his attention to do something while he was working. They didn't seem to understand this was work, and it took his whole concentration to write. He was supporting his family with his songs."

Foster's singular devotion to his craft did not yield much in terms of monetary rewards. In his lifetime, he earned between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 cents on the sales of sheet music of his songs -- after the costs of printing were covered. He was paid $15,091.08 in royalties for work that would be worth millions of dollars today.

"You write a song today, you get paid -- publishing rights, performing rights, mechanical rights," Root says. "But none of that existed for Foster. And what's more, he didn't own the copyright, it was his publisher's. ... There were 21 different publishers who put out 'Oh! Susanna.' One of them paid him $100 -- that's all he got. And the publisher bragged about making $10,000 that first year."

Carol Lee Espy, a singer and songwriter based in the North Hills, views Foster as setting a standard for future generations, even though he was poorly compensated.

"He actually made money as a songwriter and was one of the first to make publishing deals," Espy says, noting the little money Foster accrued from his talents during his lifetime. "He started something. It was like, you're going to remunerate me for my creative efforts. He was setting up the infrastructure of how we deal with intellectual property."

Staying in the shadows

Foster's fortunes would have been healthier if he had chosen to be a performer as well as a composer. Root says Foster was a competent singer with a light baritone, but was not operatic. People knew Foster's name from sheet music, but he was rarely recognized in public because of his inordinate shyness and refusal to perform in front of audiences.

Once, at a Halloween ball, his wife, Jane, searched in vain for her husband. Foster was actually nearby, playing violin with a group on a bandstand, but wearing a mask.

"Only very, very rarely would he allow himself to be introduced in front of an audience," Root says. "And that's only if they'd be singing for awhile, and usually if he was inebriated."

It was left to others to spread the word via the sheet music that spread across the country. "Oh! Susanna," which premiered in 1847 at an ice cream shop in Pittsburgh, was picked up by minstrel troupes (notably the Christy Minstrels) and was being sung in New York City that fall. By late 1848, gold miners were singing "Oh! Susanna" at Sutter's Mill in California, having retrofitted the lyrics; instead of Alabama and a banjo, they sang of going to California with a "washpan on my knee". And in the spring of 1849, natives of Panama were singing the song to travelers passing through the Isthmus of Panama.

"The music went all over the world because it was intentionally simple to sing," Root says. "The natives of Panama didn't know what the words meant. They just liked the sound of it and the way it was put together."

That simplicity came by way of Foster's favoring melody rather than harmonics as the building block for his songs. Because the music was composed so basically, it was performed easily by a single guitarist, or a solo pianist or even a capella. But Root points out that the songs are deceptive in their construction.

"A lot of people criticize Foster because he wrote simple little songs that weren't really musical," Root says. "Because real music is supposed to have chord changes and more sophisticated harmonics or modulation. And Foster didn't do that. ... His range is partly from the emotional range in lyrics, and partly one in the sophisticated manipulation of those musical details that seem very simple on the surface but are extraordinarily difficult to achieve as a composer. They look easy, but it is extraordinarily difficult to make (a song) that catches the ear."

Racist themes criticized

If Foster's music has an Achilles' heel, it lies in the perception that his lyrics are racist. "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Black Joe" have often been derided for what are considered stereotypical racist caricatures of black people.

The lyrics, however, must be viewed via the prism of the era in which they were written. Sean McDonald, a songwriter, producer and engineer from Swissvale who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Aretha Franklin, Sinead O'Connor and the Clarks, thinks that Foster actually tried to tamp down the racism that was inherent in the minstrel shows of the era

"He tried to change that direction and create some level of empathy and pathos about the subject matter with the audience," McDonald says. "Which is pretty cool, given the state of the country at the time. But that's what great songwriters try and do: Create awareness and new perspectives in their works and hopefully those new views resonate and stay with listeners."

Root thinks that many of Foster's songs were co-opted in the 19th and 20th centuries and linked to racial stereotypes. "Old Black Joe" in particular became the musical equivalent of Uncle Tom from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

"That song became symbolic of the derogatory images the entertainment media used," Root says. "The Stepin Fetchit, shuffling, shiftless, no good for nothing images. But it was really a secular hymn about the dignity of a single man, a black man, who had worked himself to death. ... That's extraordinary for 1860, before the Civil War, for a white person to be saying that."

Sad ending

In 1860, Foster moved to New York City with his family. A year later, his wife and son, Marion, moved back to Pittsburgh. Foster remained in New York and spent the rest of his life in lodging houses and hotels in the theater district. He collaborated with a poet, George Cooper, hoping to write songs that appealed to audiences of musical theater. But their collaborations -- including "If You've Only Got a Moustache" and "Mr & Mrs. Brown" -- paled in comparison to his earlier work.

Foster died on January 1864 at the age of 37 in Bellevue Hospital three days after hitting his head on a wash basin after collapsing due to a fever. His wallet contained 35 cents in Civil War scrip, three pennies and a cryptic note with the words "Dear friends and gentle hearts."

In death, as in life, Foster was cheated of what he deserved. Tom Moran, a musician from Squirrel Hill and a member of the band the Deliberate Strangers, thinks Foster never got credit for being able to synthesize the music of the period into something new. Criticized for borrowing from African-American sources, derided for his songs being used in minstrel shows, Moran thinks Foster is lambasted unfairly for taking the same path other musical geniuses, such as W. C. Handy, Bill Monroe, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, followed.

"Cross-cultural collision is what makes American music great," Moran says. "It created something that did not exist before, like the Big Bang, and it changed the world. It came from the bottom up, and it was always there. Stephen Foster's life happened to coincide with the birth of a new element in the equation, the music industry. He was one of the earliest fatalities. It was the music industry that divided music by race as a marketing scheme."

Foster's songs still are heard

Stephen Foster's music pre-dates the advent of movies and television, but those forums embrace his songs.

Since the Pittsburgh native's songs were first paired with silent films, Foster songs since have been used in cartoons (notably Looney Tunes), TV shows including "Mork & MIndy," "Murder She Wrote" and "The Waltons," and movies including "Batman," "How to Make an American Quilt" and "Office Space," all of which featured "Beautiful Dreamer."

Kathryn Miller Haines, associate director at the Center for the American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, says Foster's songs are used for five reasons:

• As a way to establish a time period, notably in the soundtrack for "Gone With the Wind."

• As a familiar trope -- a melody a director wants the audience to find familiar without necessarily attaching meaning to it.

• As political commentary. Thanks to Looney Tunes cartoons, many of Foster's minstrel songs have been linked with offensive, stereotypical images of African Americans.

• As a distinct American artifact. For example, in the final episode of "M*A*S*H" Charles directs a Korean band playing "Old Folks at Home."

• As a sound of childhood.

Sometimes, however, the songs take on new meanings.

According to Miller Haines, there is no documented use of "Camptown Races" by cowboys during Foster's lifetime. But since the beginning of Westerns in cinema, the song has been used in movies including "Wagon Wheels West," "Along the Rio Grande," "Appaloosa" and "Blazing Saddles."

Here are other uses of Foster's songs in film soundtracks:

• "My Old Kentucky Home": "Prairie Rose," "Simpatico" and "The Human Comedy."

• "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)" : "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Houdini" and "My Favorite Blonde."

• "Oh! Susanna" : "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "Patch Adams," "Meet John Doe" and "The Greatest Show on Earth."

• "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair": "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Waiting for Guffman."

Additional Information:

Doo Dah Days

The Lawrenceville Historical Society with hold the fourth annual Stephen Foster Music & Heritage Festival (Doo Dah Days) on July 11 at Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.

The bands the Allegheny Minstrels, Home Front, Tunnel Vision and Powers Freeman Berman will perform Foster's music. There will be guided trolley tours of sections of cemetery, horse and wagon rides, children's activities and Union and Confederate soldier re-enactors.

The festival runs from noon-5 p.m. Admission is free.

Details: 412-605-0966 or

Additional Information:

Stephen Foster Memorial Museum

Where: 4301 Forbes Avenue, Oakland

Admission: Free; Guided tours (must be scheduled in advance): $1.50, $1 for seniors

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; closed, Saturdays and Sundays

Details: 412-624-4100 or Web site

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