NASHVILLE SKYLINE: America’s First Great Songwriter Revisited

New Compilation Pays Tribute to Stephen Foster

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Consider Stephen Foster’s songs. Few people have for decades. But for a songwriter who died 140 years ago at age 37 with just 38 cents in his pocket as a drunkard on New York City’s Bowery, his work has become part and parcel of American culture. And it’s a beautiful musical legacy.

A new CD examines the work and contributions of this man who is generally regarded as America’s first professional songwriter. Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster is itself an interesting work. It’s the first CD release from American Roots Publishing, a new nonprofit entity created to support regional culture and regional artists. And it brings together a disparate and diverse group of artists to interpret some of Foster’s songs.

Foster was the first American song crafter to effectively meld and tie together European and African influences into what was becoming a uniquely American music. He first wrote in the style of the then-hugely-popular blackface minstrel dialect but grew away from it.

As a professional songwriter, Foster had a hard row to hoe. He had no precedents to look to. There was no BMI or ASCAP to look out for his interests and collect his royalties. There were no song pluggers. He invented that profession himself by personally hectoring song publishers and performers. He also realized he had to be his own publicist.

He seldom earned more than $100 for a song, and some songs he sold outright to publishers for the flat fee of $100 each and would never realize royalties for them. It’s important to realize that in those days before recorded music existed, what he was selling was sheet music — for others to play and sing the songs from at home or on concert stages. At the time, sheet music sold for 25 cents a copy, and Foster at his prime was receiving 2 cents for each one sold. These days, his songs have passed into public domain, so anyone recording a Foster song can copyright that particular song’s arrangement. Sort of like making it a new song.

In his very thorough biography of Foster, Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, Ken Emerson writes that Foster likely never earned more than $1,500 a year, if that.

Emerson notes that Foster’s decline came about due to the Civil War. He was not at all interested in martial music and could not update his lyrical nature to beat the drums for war. He eventually tried his hand at war ditties, but they failed. The only song of import he finished in his last two years of life was the serenade “Beautiful Dreamer,” and it was not published until after his death. In true publisher fashion, it was sold and heralded as the last song he ever wrote (“composed but a few days previous to his death”) which was not true. “Beautiful Dreamer” is interpreted on this CD in a gorgeous version by Raul Malo.

A Foster imitator, George Root, tapped into the demand for war songs with such numbers as “The First Gun Is Fired! May God Protect the Right.” His “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” earned him $10,000 because — unlike Foster — Root realized that songwriting money lay in owning the publishing. Root was a principal in the Chicago publishing firm Root & Cady.

Foster began a professional and personal decline. His wife Jane (for whom he wrote “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” sung well here by Roger McGuinn) had left him because of his drinking and general inability to support a family. Foster lived in a rooming house on the Bowery and did his songwriting in the back room of a shabby “liquor grocery.” Such establishments were described as “dens of dissipation” selling inferior food and pushing even more inferior drink to a captive poor neighborhood. Foster wrote his songs on brown wrapping paper from the grocery’s counter.

On the morning of Jan. 10, 1864, Foster arose, spoke to a chambermaid at his door and collapsed, breaking a chamber pot that badly gashed his neck. When help arrived, Foster gasped, “I’m done for,” and pleaded for a drink. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he lingered for three days before dying. Emerson speculates that a combination of years of drinking and malnutrition had killed him.

The more popular and endearing of his songs you will immediately recognize, in addition to Malo’s rendition of the title song and McGuinn’s “Jeanie.” “Hard Times Come Again No More” is sung majestically here by Mavis Staples. John Prine re-invents “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight.” David Ball lends a true country ring to “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River).” Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson bring fresh life to “Oh! Susanna,” Foster’s first hit song in 1848.

But some of the more obscure songs shine here, especially Ollabelle’s gentle rendering of the lovely “Gentle Annie” and Suzy Bogguss’ lilting “Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always!”

It’s good to hear Foster’s musical voice again and reassuring to know that it will endure.