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The Old Ethiopians at Home

Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture
By Ken Emerson
Simon & Schuster

Stephen Collins Foster was the world's first professional songwriter--first to earn his living by composing popular songs he did not perform, first to be paid in royalties rather than flat fees. He was also the most gifted pop songwriter of the 19th century. Is there even a hymnodist who can claim a body of tunes as well-remembered as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," "The Old Folks at Home," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," and "Beautiful Dreamer," to name only absolute classics? Not until George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin in the 20th century did such durability begin to seem a realistic possibility. Such successors as Henry Clay Work ("Marching Through Georgia," "My Grandfather's Clock") and Charles Harris (the self-published "After the Ball") fell well short.

The story of Foster's brief life remains obscure primarily because his survivors wanted it that way. As Ken Emerson notes in Doo-Dah!, the first true biography of Foster in over 60 years and the only good one (although William Austin's 1975 "Susanna," "Jeanie," and "The Old Folks at Home" is superb musicology), a mere 30 of Foster's letters have come down to us; most of the others were destroyed by Morrison Foster, the only one of four brothers to live to old age, who thoughtfully compensated with an 1896 memoir. But as Emerson suggests, Foster's story also remains obscure because the culture he represents isn't considered worthy of the scholarly digging that can cast light into the corners of history. A journalist working with a commercial publishing house, Emerson deserves thanks for meticulously researching a project unlikely to garner him many professional perks.

In a way, the paucity of materials was a blessing. Additional facts about this shy young man's struggles with composition and his contact with African Americans and their music would be immensely valuable, and it would be nice to know more about the inner life and external transgressions of his intermittently estranged wife, Jane (with the light brown hair). But at least Emerson wasn't tempted to write one of those month-by-month play-by-plays that turn biography into brickmaking. Instead, he breaches scholarly decorum by finding parallels in the lives of Foster's contemporaries: pioneering Afrocentrist Martin Delany, who came to Pittsburgh as a teenager in 1827, a year after the composer was born; the slightly later Pittsburgh success story Andrew Carnegie; Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the novel that would insure Foster's fame in the most important of his homes away from home, Cincinnati; Edgar Allen Poe, caught in a comparable cycle of success and failure; and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans-born classical composer-pianist whose celebrity outstripped Foster's, although he was such a troublemaker he didn't outlive him by much. As a result, Emerson's biography doubles as a cultural history--for its first hundred pages, as balanced and authoritative a summary of early American popular music as anyone has devised.

In the definitive tension of Foster's art, the parlor ballad fended off blackface minstrelsy. The parlor embodied middle-class comfort with the express purpose of putting a polite face on domestic life, blackface a "freedom from bourgeois conventions and expectations" for the predominantly male audience that felt the call of its rough humor and jumpy music. But both were recent developments that fed off innovations in piano manufacture and transport, printing, communications, and travel. And although minstrelsy came later and proved the wave of the future, its victory was hardly unequivocal. Emerson lays out this complex story with grace, originality, dispatch, and a level of insight that owes much to his experience as a rock critic.

Because writers gravitate toward verbal texts, and because the rhythms and timbres of minstrelsy's performance-defined style are difficult to reconstruct even when sheet music survives, most accounts of blackface concentrate on its scripts. And judged by its scripts, minstrelsy's racism is so blatant that commentators are hard-put to notice much else. Emerson emphasizes that racism also infected the music. But his critical orientation helps him understand that the stolen, emulated, aped, fabricated, and faked "blackness" of minstrel songs announced a change in the way Americans would make music far more fundamental than anything portended by the class animosities of minstrel theatre. Moreover, he knows his pop well enough to find relevant recent comparisons--between 19th-century English singer and songwriter Henry Russell and Elton John, or Foster's confusion over the Civil War and Brian Wilson's over Vietnam.

Although Foster's family is often described as educated and well-to-do, Emerson establishes that it was only genteel and prominent; renowned relatives all the way up to James Buchanan couldn't save his father from bankruptcy while he was mayor of the Pittsburgh suburb of Allegheny City. His family's many moves and ingrained sense of dashed opportunity lent extra savor to the longing for home that Foster shared with a century whose signature song was "Home Sweet Home"--a nostalgia that obviously infused "Old Folks at Home" and "My Old Kentucky Home" if not "Oh! Susanna" or "Camptown Races." The latter two songs represent a peak for Foster--bright, energetic, apparently meaningless divertissements with no parlor in them, both treated to convincing lyrical analyses of the sort resented by philistines who believe a ditty is a ditty is a ditty. But there's no denying that the composer was informed and animated by the ideal of an all-nurturing home even when he was escaping it. Hence, both the great "Home" songs were also "Ethiopian" songs (as opposed to elevated fare like "Jeanie" and "Beautiful Dreamer"), although the title phrase in the one about the Swanee River was changed from "old blacks at home," and although "My Old Kentucky Home" rejected the gratuitous dentals and other demeaning cliches of blackface dialect convention.

Like his father, Stephen Foster had big ideas and no head for business. The decent money he made in the early and mid 1850's was never on a par with his fame, which was spread not just by minstrel troupes but by countless musical productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin .Emerson believes he was drinking heavily as early as 1852, and by the time he settled in New York in 1860 he was a half-forgotten alcoholic who wrote for cash on the barrelhead. This was his most prolific period, and his worst--great pop songs aren't cranked out by formula any more than any other kind of art. Although his racial attitudes were suffused with a sympathy that touched millions, not all of them white, his family ties to the anti-abolitionist Democratic Party ill-prepared him for the Emancipation Proclamation, and Emerson doubts he could have adjusted to post-Civil War America. But we'll never know if he had any "Beautiful Dreamer"'s left. He died in a shabby Manhattan hotel at 37.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1996