Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Let us pause in life's pleasures ...

and count its many tears.
While we all sup sorrow with the poor."

“Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.”

Of all of the songs written by Stephen Foster, “Hard Times Come Again No More” is one of the most popular and enduring. Oddly, at the time of its writing, the song was not especially popular. While “Hard Times” may not have been very popular during Foster’s own lifetime, the song was popular with many Folk Revival singers and has remained popular since. The more recent roots music movement has renewed interest in this ode to the downtrodden.

I have heard some criticize the works of Stephen Foster as precursors to the contrived, folksy songs of Tin Pan Alley, those songs written not so much from the heart, but more from the purse. Some of Stephen Foster’s songs are even regarded today as racist, but nothing could be further from the truth. One must take into account the times in which Foster was writing, and look a little deeper into the man that has left us with a rich collection of truly American music.

Stephen Foster began writing professionally in 1846 and continued until his death in January of 1864. Many of Foster’s songs were performed in the blackface minstrel style popular at the time. Unlike many songwriters for the minstrel shows, Foster had compassion for the plight of slaves. In his own words, he wanted to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster often instructed white performers that played his songs not to deride slaves, but to help their audiences understand their plight. This was the period leading up to the Civil War, and the Foster family had never owned slaves.

Although born, on the fourth of July, 1826, to a respected middle class family, Stephen Foster would come to know hard times. His father, William Foster, was a prosperous merchant in the growing frontier city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. William Foster had supplied provisions to the army during the War of 1812, but when he entered a claim for reimbursement, the War Department disputed his claim. The legal battle over the disputed amount would last for many years and would eventually end when the Bank of United States foreclosed on the family homestead and business. From that point on, the Fosters would move frequently along the Allegheny Valley, to wherever work is available. The nationwide financial panic of 1837 worsens the Foster’s financial situation and William’s distrust of American federalism.

In 1844, at the age of eighteen, Stephen Foster published his first song, “"Open Thy Lattice Love." The song is a flop and earns Stephen no more than a pittance. Fortunately, Stephen’s older bother, Dunning, offers him a bookkeeping position with a merchant firm in Cincinnati. Stephen Foster moves to Cincinnati to work as a bookkeeper, but continues to write music.

In 1847, just before the California Gold Rush was to begin, Stephen Foster publishes “Oh! Susanna,” earning a total of $100. A respectable sum considering he earned only two cents royalties for each 25 cent sheet of music sold. The song sweeps the nation as hopeful prospectors head for the golden hills of California and the largest westward migration in American history. Prospectors and settlers travel west in covered wagons were singing “Oh! Susanna” and dreaming of riches at the end of the long trail.

Stephen Foster’s next two songs are the ones most often cited as being racist, but the accusation could not be further from the truth. “Old Uncle Ned” is a sentimental blackface ballad that Fredrick Douglass said would help to “awaken sympathies for the slave.” In the lyrics to his song, “Nelly Was a Lady,” Foster notably refers to an African-American woman as a “lady,” unheard of for the times. Sure, these songs contain language, such as “darkies,” that is unacceptable today, but in the common vernacular of the day, it was polite acceptable speech, especially when compared to many other minstrel songs of the era. Foster’s family was never slave owners and, in fact, sympathized with the anti-slavery movement.

Even though his music is often associated with the south, Foster spent his entire life along the Allegheny Rivers in Pennsylvania and along the Kentucky/Ohio banks of the Ohio River. His only visit to the Deep South was a riverboat trip to New Orleans with his bride, Jane, on their honeymoon. The publication of his song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” strengthens the belief that he is a Southerner.

Stephen’s father, William, suffers a stroke and is left an invalid the same year that Stephen and Jane become a family with the birth of their daughter, Marion. Two years later Jane leaves Stephen, taking Marion. Foster moves to New York, which is fast becoming a music publishing center. The family is reunited and moves to Hoboken, New Jersey, but the stay is cut short as they decide to move back to Allegheny to help Stephen’s ailing and nearly destitute father.

A nationwide economic downturn in 1855 prompts Stephen to write “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The following day Stephen’s mother, Eliza, suffers a massive stroke and dies. His father, William, follows a few months later. Short on cash, Stephen sells the rights to all of his songs to his publisher, Firth, Pond & Co., for $1,872.28, a decision he would later regret. Within a year he, Jane and Marion move to Warren, Ohio to live with Stephen’s sister, Henrietta.

The family decides to return to New York and its growing sheet music publishing business to try to rebuild their lives. The following February, southern sates secede to form Confederate States of America and by April the nation is at war. By summer, Jane has left with Marion again. This time she has moved to Pennsylvania and the family will not be reunited again.

During the Civil War, Stephen writes many songs, most are forgettable, possibly due to his affair with the bottle. His once thriving career and notoriety are long gone, as are his wife and daughter. Stephen Foster takes sick and is bedridden in a flophouse in New York City. He attempts to get out of bed on his own, as no chambermaid answers his call. As he rises from bed he stumbles and falls into a wash stand. The bowl shatters and deeply gashes his neck and head. He dies January 13, 1864 at New York's Bellevue Hospital with 38 cents in his pocket.

A month following Stephen Foster’s death, his publisher prints "Beautiful Dreamer, the last song written by Stephen C. Foster. Stephen Foster’s wonderful music has endured the test of time to become American classics. Unlike so many of the for-profit songwriters that would follow in what has become known as Tin Pan Alley, Stephen Foster’s songs were written from the heart and from his life experience.

"Hard Times, Come Again No More"
Literally thousands of artists have recorded Stephen Foster’s timeless reflections on the struggles of poverty. Here are but a few.

David Massengill.mp3

The Sons of the Pioneers.mp3

Bob Dylan.mp3

Emmylou Harris.mp3

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Willie Nelson.mp3

Cherish The Ladies.mp3


Boyhowdy has posted a beautiful version by James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor from the wonderful Appalachian Journey CD. Give a listen at Cover Lay Down

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Father of American Music

The music of early America, like its inhabitants, was a patchwork cultures and traditions. The musical intermingling of styles from around the world were produced new styles unique to regions of America. By the early nineteenth century, music in America was primarily a regional art form with no one national style. Some of the first songs to become popular throughout the continent came from the pen of a young man in western Pennsylvania.

Stephen Collins Foster was the ninth of ten children born to a middle class family in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh). Foster had little formal musical training; in fact he had little more than a grade school education, having left college after only one month. What little musical training he did have was provided by two very different sources. Henry Kleber, a German immigrant who owned a music store in Pittsburgh. Kleber was classically trained and taught Foster the popular parlor songs of the time. Foster’s other early musical influence was Dan Rice, a clown and blackface singer who traveled with the circus.

As a teen Stephen Foster was writing songs that were a blend of these two influences, a combination of popular parlor songs and the more risqué minstrel songs. By age eighteen he had written his first big hit. “Oh! Susanna” would become the anthem for the California Gold Rush.

Even though there were no standards for composer copyrights at the time, Stephen Foster was a pioneer in the fact that he attempted to make his living writing music. Although he received $100 for the publication of “Oh! Susanna”, many publishers printed their own copies of his songs without bothering to pay royalties.

No other pre-Civil War songwriter composed such a portfolio of songs that would typify American music and become standards in the national songbook. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs are interwoven with our national heritage. “Beautiful Dreamer”, “Camptown Races”, “Nelly Bly”, “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair”, and “Hard Times Come Again No More” are some of the songs known to school children across America. Two of his songs, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Old Folks At Home” (Suwannee River) were honored as official state songs.

Tommy Jarrell - Uncle Ned.mp3

Lotus Male Quartet - Nellie Was A Lady.mp3

Fiddling John Carson & His Virginia Reelers - Swanee River.mp3

The Light Crust Doughboys - Oh! Susannah.mp3

Rockinghams - My Old Kentucky Home.mp3
Buy it at County Sales.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's Rainin'

Much of the Southeast has had a much needed rainy springtime. Here in central Virginia, it has rained for 14 days in the past three weeks, with some particularly heavy storms since the weekend. After three years of drought no one is complaining, especially us paddlers. My favorite little whitewater run on the Appomattox River near the town of Matoaca hasn’t had much more than a foot of water in its banks since last spring. Just a trickle weaving its way between the rocks, barely enough to get your feet wet.

I just checked the gage and it’s at six-and-a-half feet. Most of the rivers around here empty pretty fast. I may have to take the afternoon off.

Gene Austin - Ridin' Around In The Rain.mp3

The Lost & Found - Rain.mp3

Dave Van Ronk - Didn't It Rain.mp3
We miss "The Mayor of MacDougal Street."

Cheryl Wheeler - Rainin'.mp3

Bonnie Carol - Over The Rainbow.mp3

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music!

Our weekend trip to upstate South Carolina was wonderful. The Artisphere International Arts Festival in downtown Greenville was a delightful blend of artisans, musicians, and culinary treats. The beautiful Falls Park along the Reedy River was a perfect backdrop for the festival.

Greenville is nestled in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and we did plenty of exploring while we were there. As paddlers we were particularly interested in the many rivers and lakes of the tri-state (GA, SC, and NC) area. Perhaps best known is the Chattooga River made famous by the movie Deliverance.

The only banjo music we heard all weekend was from the new CD by banjo veteran Tony Trischka, and what an amazing CD it is. Territory is a generous helping of banjo music, history, and lore from one of the instrument’s true masters.

If you were expecting the fast bluegrass breaks or genre-bending blend of folk, old-time, and jazz that has earned Tony Trischka Grammy nominations, frequent appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion”, and the admiration of fans worldwide, well, that’s all here, and much more.

Territory is Tony Trischka’s first solo project with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and I hope it is the first of many. This diverse collection of 21 tunes showcases not only Trischka’s superb mastery of the instrument, but the history and versatility of the banjo. The tunes on Territory range from the expected bluegrass breakdown and old-time country, to kora music from West Africa played on a banjo made from a gourd, Celtic reels, a Tin Pan Alley double banjo composition, and even a Hawaiian slide number.

Clawhammer banjo great, Bob Carlin, wrote the introductory liner notes for Territory, a full eleven pages that includes a short history of this wonderfully versatile instrument. Tony Trischka has also provided detailed notes, including tunings and background information for each cut.

Tony Trischka’s Territory is a must have for any banjo aficionado, but also a delightful addition to any collection of great acoustic music.

Tony Trischka - Fox Chase.mp3

Tony Trischka - Molly and Tenbrooks.mp3

Artist: Tony Trischka
CD: Territory
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Available from: Smthsonian Folkways and Amazon.com

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Back On The Road

It sure feels good to have the Bus back on the road.

Just a short post tonight, as I’ve plenty to do. This will be the last post of this week, as I will be out of town for a few days. There are some long overdue changes in the wind.

Two songs with the same subject, sung by two talented brothers, have been playing in my head all day.

James Taylor - Carolina In My Mind.mp3

Livingston Taylor - Carolina Day.mp3

Y’all have a good weekend!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Roll River Roll

The rains of early spring have filled the thirsty rivers once again. I managed to catch the river up on a warm Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago. A day on the river is always special, but I managed to get ahold of both of my sons and they were as excited about a day of paddling as I.

Rivers have played an important role in my life for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s a calm, lazy river to wet a fishing line and daydream, or the challenge of a whitewater run, I always enjoy my time on the river.

I’m not alone in my admiration of rivers. Moving waters have been the inspiration for many a songwriter.

The Country Gentlemen - Come and Sit by the River.mp3

Eric Andersen - Blue River.mp3

Cindy Kallet - Roll to the River.mp3

Doyle Lawson - Mis'ry River.mp3

Cheryl Wheeler - The Rivers.mp3

Tim and Molly O'Brien - Boat Up The River.mp3

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wisteria and Taxes

Few things in life can lift one’s spirit like springtime in the South. The rains that turned the earth into an endless muddy swamp have rousted the greenery from its winter slumber. The bare winter branches of hardwoods are filling with buds and the underbrush brightened with the white blooms of Dogwood. Purple blooms of wisteria hang like ornaments decorating the trees along the back roads.

There’s no sense washing the car. Before it can dry, everything will be coated in thick, yellow pine pollen. Most folks have turned under their winter cover crop and are readying the gardens with thoughts of vine ripened tomatoes. This past weekend I put the trellises up for the hop vines that are nearly three feet tall already.

But before we can fully enjoy the pleasures of spring, we must deal with another yearly occurrence that brings no joy at all. Income tax forms are due today.

There are 2080 working hours in a year. The IRS form for income taxes is number 1040, exactly half of 2080. Coincidence?

Pete Seeger - Dollar Ain't A Dollar Any More.mp3

Dixon Brothers - Sales Tax on the Women.mp3

Harlem Hamfats - Sales Tax On It (But It's the Same Thing).mp3

Louisiana Red - Working Man Blues.mp3

"You know, we all hate paying taxes, but the truth of the matter is without our tax money, many politicians would not be able to afford prostitutes." --Jimmy Kimmel

Sunday, April 13, 2008

We're Gonna Raise A Ruckus!

The Bus has been parked for far too long. If there are any riders still waiting on the corner, the Old Blue Bus is once again ambling down the rural back roads of American music.

Welcome aboard! The Bus has had a fresh tune up and your humble driver has had a long overdue overhaul. The ’fridge is stocked with cold refreshments and there is plenty of good music to share.

Reno & Smiley - Howdy, Neighbor, Howdy.mp3

Ernie & Mack - Gonna Raise A Ruckus Tonight.mp3

Robin & Linda Williams - Old Plank Road.mp3
from: Deeper Waters
available here: www.robinandlinda.com