The Stephen Foster songbook was a staple of my childhood. My mother, sitting at the old Hardman baby grand,sang "Camptown Ladies," and "O Susanna" and "Old Black Joe." But times change and Foster was pushed to the sidelines years ago. Too racist, too sentimental, too 'soft'.
Now we're enjoying a Stephen Collins Foster Revival and Festival in our very own home. It began with the discovery of the "American Dreamer" cd that Thomas Hampson recorded in 1992. Hampson, opera lovers will know, is the world champion of living baritones, and in this cd, he does Foster proud -- to the inventive accompaniments of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, No question but that Foster was a truly superb melodist --with a long string of songs that would have gone double-platinum, if there had been such a thing, in pre-Civil War America.
Hampson sings the Foster songs as if they're Schubert lieder, but there's another recent cd, "Beautiful Dreamer" -- a "tribute album" in which Suzy Bogguss, John Prine, Allison Krauss, Mavis Staples and a bunch of excellent lesser-known (to me) but wonderful musicians lay into these tunes with enthusiasm and verve. Who would have guessed the "Beautiful Dreamer" was country before country was cool? Pure country.
Foster was a better melodist than poet. Often his lines are awkward and time-bound and mawkish, but occasionally he hits the nail on the head. I like "beautiful dreamer, queen of my song"; I think that "slumber my darling the birds are at rest" is fine, but a succeeding line in the same song --"thy pillow shall sacred be" -- is bad beyond ordinary bad; "weep no more, my lady" is positively Shakespearean and "all the world is sad and dreary/ every where I roam" is well-rooted in the medieval contemptus mundi tradition; "long may the daisies dance the field, frolicking far and near" is far too pseudo-Wordsworthian for my palate. Foster's best lyric, in my view, is "Hard Times Come Again No More" -- "'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary/ Hard times, hard times, come again no more/ Many days you have lingered, around my cabin door/ Oh! hard times, come again no more." It's inspired, heartfelt, and eternally pertinent -- and also, wedded to an excellent melody. "Hard Times" was not known to me in the days of my youth -- more's the pity.
Old guy, maybe a bluesman, bottle of hooch in a brown paper bag, sits on a bench in the middle of the night, downtown, playing air-sax, nodding. Young fellow comes by, cheerful, asks him, "Crosstown buses run this way?" Blues guy looks up, pauses for a second, and then drawls, "Doo--dah, doo-dah."