It is unfortunate that the great American composer Stephen Foster has fallen under a shadow these days. He wrote over 200 parlour songs and ballads and has been generally recognized as “the Father of American Music”. But his association with the Minstrel shows that were popular during his short lifetime (1826-1864) has brought in to question the appropriateness of performing his music. Certainly the lyrics of the songs written in dialect and meant to be sung in “blackface” are cringe worthy; but much of what he wrote was simply meant to be sung around the piano by family and friends. And his music reflects the musical cultures that made up America of the early 1800s: Irish, Italian, German, et al.
In an earlier Mercoledi Musicale I featured this song with the McGarrigles, Rufus Wainwright, Mary Black and Emmy Lou Harris. They sang it as it would have been performed around that parlour piano in 1854. Here is a far grittier version by Mavis Staples, the American rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress, and civil rights activist. In either version is a song that seems appropriate for our times.
The McGarrigles often teamed up with some of, what I consider, the greats of late 20th century folk/pop music. As a reminder of how Foster’s songs would have been sung in the drawing rooms of 19th century America here they are with the much underrated Linda Ronstadt singing one of his beautiful ballads.
In 1997 Ken Emerson wrote a biography of Foster and NPR interviewed him about the duality of Foster’s dialect songs. That interview and the accompanying article are time well spent.
The word for December 2nd is:
Duality /d(y)o͞oˈalədē/: [noun]
1. The quality or condition of consisting of two parts.
2. An instance of opposition or contrast between two concepts or two aspects of something.
Late Middle English: from late Latin dualitas, from dualis (two).