How fitting that the Father of American Songwriting was born on the Glorious Fourth (1826). Stephen Foster grew up in Western Pennsylvania where his education included some formal training in music. In the 1840s he met the clown Dan Rice, a friend of his brother’s, who was to be a major influence on him. In 1846, he moved to Cincinnati to clerk for his brother’s riverboat company. This is where he began to turn out his first songs, including “O! Susannah”, his first to sweep the nation in popularity. Most of his tunes were written for minstrel companies, like the one operated by E.P. Christy. While blackface performers had been around for a couple of decades by then, the first full-fledged minstrel company had been started in 1843 by Dan Emmett. The fad was just taking off when Foster got in on it, creating many of the form’s best known tunes. Among Foster’s lasting creations were “The Old Folks at Home”, “Camptown Races”, “Swannee River”, “Old Kentucky Home” (now the official state song of Kentucky), “Old Black Joe”, “Buffalo Girls”, “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”.
Surprisingly, the Civil War years were not kind to him. His songs fell out of fashion, and songwriting royalties were unheard of in those days so he had nothing to fall back on. He died penniless and alone in a New York hotel in 1864. (Go here if you want to find out where that happened). His waning days are dramatized by historical novelist Peter Quinn in Banished Children of Eve, the Irish Rep’s adaptation of which I reviewed here last year.
Coincidentally, the other day the Countess and I found the 1952 Republic Pictures Stephen Foster bio-pic I Dream of Jeanie in the 99 cent bin of a bargain store. We’ve been on a show biz bio-pic binge anyway so we just had to check it out. It’s rather dreary. Foster is depicted as a whining girlie man (the usual 39 year old actor playing a 19 year old), pining for a girl who scorns his music and ignoring the love of his life who’s been right under his nose the whole time, her kid sister Jeanie. Thus, like 95% of Hollywood bio-pics, it is almost entirely fictional. But full of Foster’s music. The fact that the film was made by Republic (whose usual metier was low-budget Westerns) might explain the lengthy minstrel show sections starring a real blackface** company. This is very late in the game for such a throwback — only three years later kids would be dancing to Little Richard. At any rate, the film is interesting, and it is the last major attempt at a Foster bio-pic, undoubtedly for reasons of racial sensitivity. Previous films included 1939’s Swanee River, starring Don Ameche, and 1935’s Harmony Lane.
To find out more about the history of the variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.