Before Tin Pin Alley, before Music Row, before radio, the phonograph and Irving Berlin, there was the solitary figure of Stephen Foster, walking along the indifferent streets of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York and dreaming his beautiful dream of making a living by writing songs. He made it, of course, and in doing so became the prototype of every would-be hit writer. But his death in 1864 at the age of 37 meant that he never savored the fruits of his art or his example.
Now comes Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, a new collection of 18 compositions that embraces the familiar "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight" as well as such seldom-heards as "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai" and "In the Eye Abides the Heart." Recorded by a variety of solo artists and bands, the album was created by American Roots Publishing, a non-profit organization designed to preserve and promote artifacts of regional cultures. It was released on Aug. 24 and now ranks in the top 200 of Amazon's bestselling titles.
A project put together primarily by volunteers, Beautiful Dreamer was co-produced by Steve Fishell, whose day job is directing the A&R department for Sugar Hill Records, and David Macias, head of Emergent Marketing, a company that specializes in marketing and distributing records by independent labels.
"The idea to do the album is something I'd been thinking about for a few years," says Macias. "My slant on things was probably a little skewed because I grew up in Florida, and [Foster] had written the state song of Florida ['Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)']. So in my mind, Stephen Foster was this semi-mythic figure. I was curious why somebody whose songs were so much in the American fabric [didn't have] a collection of songs in a more contemporary idiom. Everything [of his] was in a parlor music or light classical genre. I just thought it would be something that would be a record that I would enjoy listening to and ... would help re-establish him as the force that he was in terms of shaping American music."
Macias advanced the notion of making a Foster album to Tamara Saviano, president of American Roots Publishing, when they were mulling over fundraising ideas for the fledgling organization.
Fishell confesses that he knew little about Foster's music before he signed on to the project.
"I was just like everyone else," he says. "I knew the same six songs that everyone else knew, probably thanks to Elmer Fudd singing 'Camptown Races' in the Looney Tunes cartoons when I was growing up. And that was it. I had no idea about songs like 'Slumber, My Darling,' which Alison Krauss sings here, or 'No One to Love,' [which Judith Edelman sings]. These are incredibly fetching heartfelt songs, very well-written."
With the exception of two songs that Fishell produced himself -- "Hard Times Come Again No More" for Mavis Staples and "Camptown Races" for the Duhks -- most of the artists either produced or arranged for the production of their own tracks. The Krauss cut, which also features Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor, was borrowed from an earlier album, Appalachian Journey on the Sony Classical label. The rest were recorded specifically for Beautiful Dreamer.
"[Macias] greatly added to the creative equation," Fishell continues. "He's the kind of guy that'll call you up at 6:45 and you're right in the middle of dinner and say, 'We gotta get Henry Kaiser to play this instrumental,' or 'We gotta get Ron Sexsmith' -- all the really cool, enlightened ideas. So he gets a lot of credit."
To set the album in motion, Fishell began calling artists he respected, either for their participation or advice.
"One of the first calls I made was to Rodney Crowell," he says. "He wanted to [participate], but he had an album out last fall. So he was just slammed and couldn't do it. But he believed in what we were trying to do. In his conversation with me, he said, 'I don't know that much about Stephen Foster.' That's when the light bulb went off in my head. This really helped inspire me to pursue this. I thought, 'Wow, if Rodney, who's one of my heroes as a writer, has a blank spot in his incredible intellect about Stephen Foster, then this must be an OK idea to pursue."
Given the general lack of knowledge about Foster's music, it fell to Macias to become the resident Stephen Foster scholar.
"I wasn't really a collector [of his music], " Macias says, "but I had certainly read about him, I had CD collections of his songs and I was familiar with quite a lot of them. But when we undertook this project, I contacted the Stephen Foster Library at the University of Pittsburgh -- Foster was a Pittsburgh native -- and they sent me a lot of source material and really aimed me in the right direction. They sent me four discs with a version of every song that they knew of that had ever been recorded. And they told me about these songbooks that the Smithsonian [Institution] had put out and were out of print and where I could go to get them. In terms of putting together a lot of the source materials that gave [us] kind of a jumping-off point, they were invaluable."
Sifting through the material, Fishell and Macias selected dozens of songs they thought would work for the album.
"Once I found myself listening to Foster's songs," Fishell says, "I was mesmerized. I was just blown away by how articulate and emotive he was as a lyricist. And the melodies get under your skin. ... In many instances, we would call up the artists -- and it would go 50/50. We'd either ask them, 'Can we send you 25 or 30 songs, and you choose,' or we'd just flat out say, 'We'd really love for you to do this song.' That was the case with Mavis [Staples]. I heard it in my head that ['Hard Times Come Again No More'] would be incredible as a gospel song. And, of course, who better to do it than Mavis?"
Not every artist Fishell approached felt up to the project.
"Several times it happened," he says, "that when we sent people songs, they were befuddled -- especially since they knew only the same six songs. ... Many times, the artists couldn't relate to it at all. It was so removed. ... Some people gravitated toward it, and others just couldn't find a toehold."
Among those who did find a toehold was the new group, Olabelle, which earlier this year dazzled reviewers with its performances on the Great High Mountain tour. The band's ethereal rendering of "Gentle Annie" still sends Fishell scurrying for superlatives.
"What slays me about that," he says, "is that guitar solo. It's like a steel guitar kind of a vibe, but that's a guitar. That guy [Jimi Zhivago] is so good, and the women singing in that group are just really extraordinary." Fishell notes that Sony Records paid for and donated both the Olabelle and the Krauss tracks.
All the artists except Beth Nielsen Chapman relied on existing recordings when it came to choosing their songs.
"Beth really wanted one of the familiar songs initially," Fishell explains, "but when they were all taken, she went to the trouble of coming over here to the office and looking [through the two-volume set of] The Complete Stephen Foster Songbook. ... She was so taken by the lyrics of five of these songs that she wrote them all down, went to someone who could play them for her and made her choice based strictly on songs that we did not have recordings for. ... What she ended up choosing was a song called 'In the Eye Abides the Heart.' It turns out that this was a Stephen Foster translation of an 1830s German song. ... We're just about positive that the song's never been recorded before."
Chapman wasn't the only artist going that extra mile for the album. Mavericks lead vocalist Raul Malo sang, accompanied himself on guitar and bass, recorded and mixed the title track. Grey De Lisle, who recorded "Willie We Have Missed You," even went so far as to change the songs from a major to a minor key, Fishell says, "to add more mystique to it."
Fishell is similarly impressed by singer Alvin Youngblood Hart. "I'm such a big fan of his now," he says. "I just thought [his] was a wonderful take on that song ['Nelly Was a Lady']. That song was the first one written by a white American songwriter about a black woman and referring to her as a 'lady.' For the time period, it was completely revolutionary. That's the thing that I've come to learn about Stephen Foster that I admire. Although he initially wrote these minstrel songs to get his career off the ground -- and 'Oh! Susanna' is one of those big, big hits -- he came to realize later on that this was trashy, that it was wrong-headed to write racist material."
The album's elegant 24-page insert booklet was designed by Aimee Roberts Mazurek of Digital Vision Media. "We actually drove to Pittsburgh," Macias says, "and went to the museum one more time [for the art], and they loaded us down with all kinds of materials. All the images [in the booklet] came from the library. On the pages where the lyrics are, all those [ornamental] borders come from original sheet music for Stephen Foster. The image [of a woman] in the middle of the booklet comes from a broadside [version] of 'Beautiful Dreamer.'"
"This record wouldn't exist if it weren't for the graciousness of these artists, who pretty much donated all of their performances," Fishell observes. "We covered their expenses, but no one was paid a penny to play on this [except for] some of the musicians and engineers. And they worked for way under [union] scale. The whole record was finished for less than $15,000."
Other performers on the album are BR549, John Prine, David Ball, Michelle Shocked & Pete Anderson, Roger McGuinn, Suzy Bogguss and Will Barrow.