Michael Feinstein pays tribute to the first great American songwriter Stephen Foster. Stephen (1826 - 1864) was the first songwriter to earn his living solely through his music rather than subsisting, as other songwriters did at the time, by teaching or performing. His life marks the start of popular music as we recognize it today.
It was the whirlwind success of Oh Susanna, written when Foster was 21, which led him to his chosen career. The song spread like wildfire from his native Pittsburgh to New York, then to California where it became the anthem for the Gold Prospectors - the '49ers". Probably no single song had ever been so popular before but, despite that, Foster never saw a cent from the 30 arrangements which 16 different publishers copyrighted.
As well as Oh Susanna, Foster was the author of Camptown Races, Beautiful Dreamer, Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home, The Old Folks At Home, Hard Times Come Again No More? He drew on African-American sources; European balladry; Italian opera; as well as utilizing polka, waltz and even blues in his melodies. Foster was also determined to replace what he called "the trashy and really offensive words" of the ubiquitous black-faced minstrels. His 1850 Nelly Was A Lady was a breakthrough: no white songwriter had ever called a black woman "lady" before.
Personally, Foster's life was a tragedy: his marriage broke up, he roomed in poverty on the Bowery, and ended up selling his original songs for the price of his next drink. And when the martial beat of the Civil War took hold, his beautiful but sentimental songs seemed out of step with the times.
Stephen Foster died at the age of 37, after a fall; in his wallet was 38 cents and a scrap of paper that read, "Dear Friends and gentle hearts." But his real legacy was the foundation of American popular song; without Stephen Foster, no George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Bob Dylan even.
Artists such as Nanci Griffith, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Roger Mcguinn have all done versions of Foster songs.They tell us what they personally love in his music and why they feel it's still so relevant today. Biographer Ken Emerson talks about the key aspects of Foster's personal life and Deane L Root, musicologist and director of the Center for American Music explains the musical context of the time and why what Foster was attempting to do was so groundbreaking.
Michael Feinstein pays tribute to the groundbreaking American songwriter Stephen Foster.".