The Stephen Foster Problem

What to do with Stephen Foster? Among the greatest of American songwriters, reportedly the first to actually make a living at it (for a while), regarded by many scholars as the “father of American music.” Many of his 200+ songs written in the mid-19th century are embedded into the very fabric of American culture via countless cover versions by renowned musicians, abetted by millions of schoolchildren taking easily to his infectious, easily digestible tunes (“Beautiful Dreamer,” “Oh Susanna”, “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Swanee River,” “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “The Hard Times Come Again No More”).

Author of these lines, written for his wife Jane:

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away!
… Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

But there was this about him, too: Hopeless alcoholic who was selling his clothes at the end of his life in order to buy more liquor. Died at age 37, three days after either an accidental fall or a suicide attempt left him lying bleeding and naked on the floor of his 25-cents-per-night Bowery Street flophouse, his wife long fled with their daughter.

He had gone to New York in what turned out to be his last desperate attempt to sell his songs to musical shows in an era before radio play and decent copyright protection would have solved the lifelong financial challenges that resulted from his poor business sensibility. His one pair of remaining pants at his death contained his wallet with 38 cents in it.

Oh, he was also the author of these lines—from the original (1848) second verse of the wildly popular “O Susanna”:

I jumped aboard the telegraph and trabbled down de ribber,
De lectrick fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred Nigga.

No, that wasn’t the version that Bing Crosby, James Taylor, Carly Simon and Charles Schulz’s “Snoopy” sang a century and more later, its first two lines having been long since amended to:

It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death, Susanna don’t you cry

No American song had ever sold more than 5,000 copies of sheet music before “Oh! Susanna” came along and sold more than 20 times that.

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Five generations of a slave family in Beaufort, South Carolina

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Foster wrote much of his music for pre-Civil War minstrel shows (he died in 1864) in which white singers smeared on black face and portrayed African Americans as shiftless and dense, slow in body and mind. It delighted those white audiences of the time who were steeped in the economic and psychological benefits they accrued from seeing slaves as subhuman.

If we negate Foster’s few odious lyrical references and his split-the-difference views on abolition that we no longer abide in these more evolved and sensitized times, does it mean we must negate him and all he was, along with all his music?

So in between that and his clearly racist lyrics we see above, the temptation is to see Foster as just another white supremacist making money from slavery, unworthy of the time, attention and accolades he has been accorded, including the honor of continuing to have some half dozen elementary schools across the country named after him, from Florida to Wisconsin to Texas  to California.

But only very rarely are history and the geniuses who moved it quite so cut and dried.

Because it is also true that other of Foster’s lyrics portrayed the slave’s plight in poignant and human terms.

Writing in Smithsonian Magazine last year, the professors and brothers Alex and Steven Lubet had this to say:

“’My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,’ as it was originally titled, was written by Foster in the 1850s as an anti-slavery song, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and following the same story arc as Stowe’s title character. His initial working title was ‘Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight.’ The song emphasizes the humanity and close family ties of the enslaved population at a time when African Americans were routinely dehumanized and caricatured.”

The point gets even more complicated when we behold the then-common-as-dirt but shocking-today racial slur that Foster includes in the song’s first three verses while simultaneously painting a picture of the backbreaking toil facing slaves’ daily lives.

The song gives voice to a slave’s mournful departure from his beloved state after he is sold and headed for the deep south:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright;
By ‘n’ by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon,
On the bench by the old cabin door.
The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;
A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, ’twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

Is Foster reprehensible with his use of “darky,” or commendable for noting the bowed heads and bent backs begat by slaves toting their “weary load” that “’twill never be light,” wrapped within a musical and lyrical mood of pathos and lamentation?

None other than the great black abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass thought the latter, writing in his autobiography, “In My Bondage and My Freedom” that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”

Others have demurred, suggesting that Foster is extolling the virtues of “happy” slavery in Kentucky, as opposed to the horrors awaiting deeper south. But truly, the only “happy” slave is a freed slave.

Notably, the black singer and activist Paul Robeson, no one’s idea of an undignified milquetoast, captured the song’s deep pathos probably better than anyone with his sonorous baritone in 1936, not flinching from the song as it was written. (It was revised in 1968, with “people” replacing “darkies.”)

Robeson makes the sorrow and melancholy under Foster’s words almost palpable; feel free to give it a listen here before returning for some concluding discussion on the ever-sticky issue of how to view the tangled history that is every culture’s—and every person’s—perhaps most daunting task.

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We tend to fall hard for our artists and entertainers and sports stars. We pay big money for the pleasure of them showing us their very best, most engaging selves, talented and creative and lovable, bringing us joy, making us feel good for a blissful few hours about life and its possibilities. Artists shed star power pixie dust with each little toss of their head, acrobatic move or inflection of voice.

Bruce Springsteen suddenly pivots amidst his pyrotechnic guitar playing, cocks his hand to his ear with a grin playing at the corners of his mouth, and the crowd roars, “Baby I was bo-ohrnnn to runnnn!”

No matter that greatly talented artists protest they’re just people like we’re people—we don’t accept that for a minute. Maybe intellectually we do, but emotionally, we regard them with a kind of awe and hold them to impossible standards.

After all, we could not possibly make them feel as good about life as they make us feel, so every penny of that $100 ticket is worth it!

All of this is classic projection, of course. Their talent aside, artists truly are no “better” at being people than we are. Some are better, some are worse. All of them have bad days, bad ways, bad phases, make ruinous decisions that cause them and their loved ones grief.

But in their work, they intentionally show us their most interesting and emotionally compelling parts—their best, highest selves, fully tapped into and expressed. From which we assume that they have special insights and maybe have figured this whole life & happiness thing out.

But most all the time, they haven’t—not necessarily any more, that is, than has an industrious junior accountant or a beloved custodian whose peeps have long noted their uncomplicated hearts of gold.

Was Stephen Foster a good person with a heart of gold, as expressed so clearly and hauntingly in “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Hard Times,” which plumbs the depths of life’s travails with a tender and soulful spirit?

Sometimes. Most certainly in the heart of that music.

But was he also too timid or ultimately unconcerned to use the platform he had at the time to more strongly denounce slavery’s evils and refrain from using the dehumanizing language that cropped up elsewhere in his songs?

I would have to say yes, though this is where we must tread carefully in answering the next question: “So then what?”

Denounce him as a racist and be done with his music forevermore, while renaming those half dozen schools bearing his name? (In 2018, in the wake of the Charlottesville disturbance, the city of Pittsburg did remove a 118-year-old statue of Foster that showed him with a barefoot black man at his feet, playing a banjo.)

Stephen Foster was a good, in some ways bad, and in most ways a tragic man, which describes all manner of men and women struggling to reconcile the vexing questions of human existence in an inherently tragic world. He is above and apart from the vast lot of men and women, however, not because of his all too common casual racism, but because he left a remarkable artistic output that has and continues to provide great pleasure and inspiration to millions of people around the globe.

It should be noted that he generally endorsed the solomonic approach of his distant relative, President James Buchanan, who tried (and failed) to preserve the union by letting individual states decide whether they wanted to maintain slavery. And despite Foster’s close identity with southern-tinged songs, he was born in Pennsylvania and lived the bulk of his life in Pittsburgh, traveling south of the Mason-Dixon line exactly once in his lifetime, on a steamboat ride to New Orleans in 1852 with his wife.

If we negate Foster’s few odious lyrical references and his split-the-difference views on abolition that we no longer abide in these more evolved and sensitized times, does it mean we must negate him and all he was, along with all his music?

Do his failings in a moral sense when morals and contexts have changed since he lived mean the failure of his life and work, no matter its other merits and what other currents may have coursed through his heart?

What role forgiveness and understanding, of him and others who lived long ago, in times and contexts far different than our own?

Ultimately, if we do not take a broader view of past failings, can we ever, on both a national and personal level, come to reconcile our own?

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The marvelous Mavis Staples goes deep into this haunting but hopeful ballad like none of the hundreds of other singers who have been righteously drawn to it before…

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Foster portrait from historical archives

Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, courtesy of the Library of Congress  http://loc.gov/pictures/

20 comments to The Stephen Foster Problem

  • Al  says:

    Thanks for enlightening me I bit more about Stephen Foster. When he wrote “hard times come again no more” he knew of what he wrote, poor guy. We can certainly say he was fully human. If I had had the misfortune of becoming famous, I would not want to have been judged by my worst day or my most racist behavior.

    When I grew up in my privileged neighborhood with a live-in “colored” maid, I recall choosing sides for a game on the front lawn near the kitchen window using the then common rhyme, “eeny meeny minee moe, catch a nigger by the toe”. My sister immediately shushed me, telling me our maid Millie was at the kitchen window and might hear. I was mortified.

    We are products of our time and once we are dead, we can’t grow with them anymore. Had Stephen Foster lived to see these times I suspect he would be a liberal Democrat sending money to Georgia to help get out the black vote.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I hear ya on that “misfortune of becoming famous,” Al—oyyy! I’m also pretty sure I sung those same lyrics on my own lawn as a boy, with all the mindlessness of youth. But we have come a long way, and are working our way even further along, I think, with all the travail and anguish and revulsion that seems to be rending our country, but which I trust—or at least live in hope—will ultimately work itself out to our betterment, with our heirs further pushing the creation of a more just society than we have been able to accomplish thus far. Thanks much for sharing this real-world anecdote.

  • Claire Spencer  says:

    Well, said, Andrew. Love, justice, prejudice, and man’s inhumanity to man are a mixed bag. My concern is that in whitewashing the bad, if you will, runs the risk of losing the lesson that our baser inclinations have taught us. By the way, I didn’t even realize that all the songs were his. Thanks for the insight and information.

  • Claire Spencer  says:

    Oh my god…..I just sent an unedited mess. My concern is that in whitewashing the bad, if you will, we run the risk of losing the lesson that our baser inclinations have taught us.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      No worries, Claire—there’s always an additional Comments box available to rectify overly hasty clicks on the “Post” button! Couldn’t agree more that we must be careful never to whitewash the bad, and am sorry if I have left that impression in any way. I think there’s a great difference between whitewashing behavior and understanding it and ultimately forgiving it. So much depends on context and the totality of a person’s life, actions and behavior. Like most people, Foster presents a mixed bag of good and bad (and tragic), and he also lived 160 years ago. I’m wary of pointing a finger of shame at him, trembling in self-righteousness, dismissing him as beneath contempt as some are wont to do. That’s too easy, and unhelpful for either me or for assessing his place in musical and cultural history. (And it also loses us a lot of great music.)

      Now: the likes of Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz? That is an easy call. They’re not really mixed bags—they have long been out there, proudly, in all their intentional deception and destructiveness, in full flower. I’ll let them deal with their maker in due time, but they get precious little sympathy or forgiveness from me.

      • Claire Spencer  says:

        You didn’t leave that impression. I segued in another line of related thought. :)

  • Jim Kellough  says:

    Is it complicated? Yes. The Jesus (love) in Foster’s music outweighs the Jesse (hate) in the lyrics. As an Omni American, I am holding back my natural hate for the racist anti-racists going after Foster & Audubon. Next, I’m going to search what Bert Williams says about Foster.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Haven’t heard that “Omni-American” term before, Jim, but I think I might qualify as the mongrel Hungarian-German-Slavic-American-Catholic-turned-Unitarian-with-Buddhist-sensibilities that I am. Do I have to apply for membership?

  • Henry W Majestic  says:

    What? A nuanced examination of history? Such a concept. Nice work as usual.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks much, Henry—I thought I was done with this late last night but awoke to the realization that a long slog of nuance still lay ahead. Very happy that you picked up on it!

  • Meggan  says:

    I really enjoyed learning all of this about Stephen Foster.
    Like some of the above commenters I am less and less hasty to judge others, especially from times gone by.
    As a teenager I felt a deep revulsion regarding all things German as I learned about the Holocaust. As we watched our country marching to the brink of fascism in the 45 era I used that hatred as a prod as I found what I was able of willing to do to combat it. I found myself wanting and had to apologize for the people I soundly condemned. We all have racism in us. Maya Angelou said if you have not found it in yourself you have not looked deeply enough.
    On another note I immediately looked up the song Old Black Joe to see if Foster wrote it. He did! His ability to empathize with an elderly black enslaved man gave me a song that I have sung my whole life. It allowed me to be that man, feel that man and prepare for my own aging. It is almost comical to think of a little white girl belting out that song from her heart but it never feels strange to me. I love it!
    So thank you!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks back, Meggan—I’d come across the title “Old Black Joe” in my research but never got to it, so all new to me, and very glad to make its acquaintance. As with most all of Foster’s songs that touch on blacks, this one has stirred up controversy too, unlikely as it might seem given the tender lyrics.

      Near as I can tell, the critique is that since Joe is a slave, it’s improper to ascribe any appreciative or heart-gladdened feelings to him, because the fact of slavery overwhelms all. But that shortchanges human adaptability, I think, and ignores that slaves themselves largely survived by singing their hearts out and seeking small consolations wherever they could find them, as all humans do, in otherwise appalling circumstances. (I’m reminded of the dustup here regarding the Nazi death camp movie “Life Is Beautiful”—remember the argument that one can’t or at least shouldn’t make comedy out of the Holocaust? I agree with that in something like “Hogan’s Heroes,” but I think “Life Is Beautiful” was of a far different order.)

      Found it interesting, too, that Paul Robeson, who vocalized “darky” in “My Old Kentucky Home,” changed “Old Black Joe” to “Old Old Joe.” That’s a bit puzzling, but my guess is that in the mid-30s, “Negro” was the operative term and “black” was still considered problematic, which all changed, as we know, in the ’60s. If anyone has a different take on that matter, I’d love to hear it!

  • Bill Crowley  says:

    I still have some Stephen Foster songs in my head from learning them in elementary school or wherever. The basic question you raise in this thoughtful piece is “Do we judge past individuals, cultures, nations beliefs/practices by today’s standards? The present sense on the left is that we do. I’m not that far left and I think we’re getting close to the end of the pendulum swing and it will begin to come back to a more reasonable attitude toward what has gone before. If those of us of some age consider our own histories most of us would find attitudes, beliefs and actions we held/practiced that we’d deplore today. For most of us, if not all of us, our views evolve and ideas we fostered (had to work that word in here!) previously, we might abhor today. So it is with the larger society, and with time. Oh, and don’t forget the “h” in Pittsburgh (smile)!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for that “h” in Pittsburgh, Bill—I swear I paused on it and told myself to check because I regularly confuse it with the one in NorCal, but then I forgot to loop back! Will make that change soon as I’m done with this note…

      To your larger point about the pendulum swing, I hope you’re right and sense you probably are. Cancel culture/PC is a real thing (though it exists on the right, too—just ask Liz Cheney…), and probably the most insidious part of it is how much it drives people away who would otherwise be amenable to reasoned arguments about the critical importance of language and its capacity to shape and sustain systemic racism—or chip away at it.

      As in everything, the middle is where most people hang out on the bell curve, and while the fringes exert needed pressure on the middle, making policy from there almost inevitably results in the pendulum swinging back the other way—sometimes dramatically.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Fred Astaire said that if it wasn’t for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, tap-dancing would never have become such a popular and beloved dance form. He profoundly respected, even idolized Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. However, in his famous “Bojangles of Harlem” number from “Swing Time”, Astaire appears as a thick-lipped black faced minstrel dancer who wears gigantic clown-like shoes, derby, polka-dot bow tie, and far too large trousers. Its racist stereotypical image is difficult to swallow…yet, Astaire’s “Bojangles in Harlem” remains as one of the most imaginative choreographed dance numbers in film history. That’s the rub. Do libraries ban “Huckleberry Finn” from its offerings because Twain called Huck’s traveling mate “Nigger Jim?” Can a film professor honestly ignore the technical innovations (tracking shots, dissolving close-ups, crosscuts, flashbacks and split-screens) that were introduced in D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK film “Birth of a Nation”? Should theaters no longer show “Gone with the Wind” because its portrayal of slaves as happy and thoroughly at peace with their bondage? I think not.

    FIY, if you haven’t seen “Swing Time”, give it a look. TCM airs it at 11:45 A.M. on Wednesday, April 28th.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’ll get that “Swing Time” showing on my calendar, Robert, for a rare matinee, making sure to have popcorn in the house.

      Your “Birth of a Nation” reference also put me in mind of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” Have always intended to but haven’t yet seen either one, and I note both are available full-length on You Tube. Will need an extra-large box of popcorn for “Birth…”, it running to 3 hrs. 13 mins, yow! This comment from the You Tube stream seems to reflect more or less the consensus view I have always understood to be the case in reading about it: “Most despicable and abhorrent masterpiece I have ever seen.”

  • David Moriah  says:

    Well, hello again! I haven’t commented on your posts for a while but this one brought me out of the closet, so to speak. An excellent piece of writing, full of provocative questions of how we are to view the complexity of artistry, genius (musical in this case), and historical context. As in so many cases, those of us who consider ourselves on the “right side” of the race issue can easily avoid looking within ourselves with the kind of ruthless determination required to root out our own implicit biases by looking back or looking outward to castigate and dismiss the sins of others – “‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector!” Luke 18:11. Or today’s equivalent statement, oozing with self-righteous foolishness – “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” And thank you for including the marvelous Paul Robeson version of the song. I love to hear his rich voice once again. Be well, my friend, and carry on!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Just found myself thinking of you last week, David, fearing we had lost you forever to the catacombs of Facebook (or more alarmingly, Twitter…). Glad to have you checking in.

      I’m with you all the way in the matter of walking humbly in these 2021 shoes, both in terms of avoiding righteous indignation at those ignoramuses from 1921 & 1821, and also applying the same to our contemporaries today. I think good intentions matter hugely, and people deserve a lot of leeway as long as they start there. (Meaning that, say, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity deserve no leeway…)

      Oh-so-glad to hear you’re a fan of Paul Robeson. About a third of the way thru the definitive biography on him; will be a while before I finish & write it up, but a worthy endeavor it is. Talk about spanning a good number of the flashpoints of 20th century America!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    With current voter suppression efforts in Georgia and Texas, the recent Chauvin trial, and the likes of Gaetz and Trump lurking about, I find it difficult to discern feelings about historical figures reflecting the cultural values of their times. I shudder to think about some of the thoughts coming from my 1909-born mother from western Kansas, and how I tore into her; all the while seeing the hurt and bewilderment expressed in her eyes. With that said, many thanks for enlightening us about Foster.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, I feel like “tearing into her while seeing the hurt and bewilderment expressed in her eyes” can stand in for all the ferment and upheaval that most certainly reflected much of American culture coming out of the 50s and through the ’60s, but in a larger archetypal sense, all the grinding gears that signify the lurching of one generation to another as history pursues the course it does, some of it blind, some hurtful, some hopeful, all of it real as can be…

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