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.


Blogger boyhowdy said...

Man, you've got some great archives.

Just posted James Taylor's version of Hard Time Come Again No More over at Cover Lay Down (from Appalachian Journey, with Yo Yo Ma/Edgar Meyer/Mark O'Connor). You say schoolchildren know this one, but I never heard it until this disk came out a few years ago. Is it a southern thing?

April 27, 2008 10:33 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Not many other blogs out there with music from 1902. Great post, again!

You've got me wondering when the concept of published and paid "songwriters" first came into existence. Something to Google, I guess.

April 27, 2008 11:20 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

I suppose it is a Southern thing. “Hard Times Come Again No More” was the first song I learned to play, and is still one of my favorites.

Oddly, many of Foster's songs are associated with the South, even though the only time he ever ventured farther south than Cincinnati was a river boat ride to New Orleans on his honeymoon.

April 28, 2008 6:09 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

The music publishing business was not much more than individuals who published their own (or stolen) songs on broadsides, sometimes ornate flyers printed with the lyrics of topical songs. The sheet music industry was mostly focused on the more popular and urban classical and opera.

It was the invention of recording that really spurred the songwriting industry. ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) was founded in 1914 to protect the newly prosperous business of writing music, especially the writers of Tin Pan Alley.

Many ethnomusicologists break down pre-20th century music into two categories: Child Ballads, songs identified as traditional or based on traditional music as published by Francis J. Child's five volume works, “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” (1882-1898.) Or as Broadsides, topical songs published by poets, musicians, and songwriters.

Would be a good subject for a post.

April 28, 2008 6:26 AM  
Blogger boyhowdy said...

Would be a GREAT subject for a post. Have fun writing it :-)

On a related subject, as part of my research for this week's posts on my own site, I just learned that, according to the Songwriter's hall of fame site, the term "singer-songwriter" was invented to describe a small group of artists, one of which was James Taylor.

I get two things from this: First, that the idea that a songwriter would perform their own songs regularly, and be known for both, was new enough to require etymological change around Taylor's time. And second, that there was a significant and measurable period of time between the development of the concept of song ownership/authorship and the artistic phenomenon of the performer who also wrote songs, but claimed both "parts" of music production as a single category of artistry.

More generally, the songwriter's hall of fame site clarifies and goes further into the definition of songwriter, and the roles and evolution of that, pretty effectively, if anyone IS going to write that post.

April 30, 2008 10:54 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Sounds like you're miles ahead of either Paul or me :)

April 30, 2008 1:44 PM  

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