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The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster

Known as the "father of American music," Stephen Foster made his living by selling his sheet music in the days before records and radio. During his career, Foster penned over 200 tunes, including the lyrics for "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home."

But many of Foster's musical lyrics often contained hateful racial ideas. Some of Foster's songs, like the ones written in black dialect to be performed in black face, are "a source of racial embarrassment and infuriation," says Ken Emerson.

Emerson, a music historian, is the author of a Foster biography, Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster And The Rise Of American Popular Culture. He also edited a new compilation of lyrics penned by Foster and his contemporaries, entitled Stephen Foster & Co.

In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross, Emerson explained Foster's importance to the history of popular song and also why his songs continue to resonate more than 150 years after he wrote them.

"I think that Stephen Foster really did create popular music as we still recognize it today, and he did it because he took together all these strands of the American experience," Emerson said. "And he consciously or -- it was hard to talk about the degree of consciousness -- but he clearly, effectively merged [other ethnic genres] into a single music. And I think he merged them in a way that appeals to the multicultural mongrel experience of America in its history and culture."

Emerson also points out that many of Foster's songs were more sophisticated than he had originally imagined.

"There's one song he wrote, for instance, ["The Glendy Burk"] which deliberately quotes two measures of Schubert and then quotes two measures of a Robert Burns Scottish ballad, so that you have sort of a Scottish [sound] and a German [sound] you know, spliced," Emerson explains. "And that kind of wit and craft is something that people didn't realize Foster possessed when we used to think of him as sort of this naive folk poet with his finger on the pulse of the American soul, in a sort of a salt-of-the-earth way. He was a much more conscious writer who didn't just compose his songs. He contrived them."

This interview was originally broadcast on June 17, 1997

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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