Friday, June 4, 2010

An old song resung

Last weekend at an estate sale I scored a book of Stephen Foster songs, for voice and piano. That is it pictured above! I bought it over the protests of my mother who said we have the old book lying around somewhere. I said, it would not hurt to have two copies.

When I was little this was the same book my dad and I used to play out of. I would play the Stephen Foster songs and he would sing them. Wow, on the Internet this book is going for $50! I paid $2. I did not do too badly! And mine is a first edition too. I just checked.

I have a deep and nerdy and politically incorrect love for Stephen Foster.

Sighing like the night winds and howling like the rain
Waiting for the loved one who comes not again

Lyrics like this, I eat them up! Those lines are from "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," especially beautiful when sung by Thomas Hampson.

Deems Taylor points out in his beautifully written notes for my old book that "Jeanie" has to have been the only song to make it to the Hit Parade over 150 years after it was originally published. Apparently it was a big hit in the early 1940s.

My dad also had an old Capitol record of Stephen Foster songs sung by the Roger Wagner Chorale and for some reason it was traditional for us to play that record on Easter. Everyone else on Easter is listening to "Messiah" and there we were listening to Stephen Foster. A while ago I scored that record at a garage sale and I listen to it a lot. I just played it last week when I had a few people over. We were sitting around having drinks and listening to my Stephen Foster record.

A few politically incorrect songs of Stephen Foster:

1. "Old Black Joe." Difficult to find on YouTube but here is a cute version by Jerry Lee Lewis. Deems Taylor writes that of Stephen Foster's last 100 songs this one was the only hit.

2. "My Old Kentucky Home." Because of the beginning, among other things. Rosa Ponselle does not fudge it.

3. "Louisiana Belle." My dad used to love to sing this one. I cannot find it anywhere.

4. "Oh Lemuel." Oh, I cannot find this one either. Does not surprise me. It is all about going down to the cotton fields. Oh, wait! I found someone singing it without crediting Stephen Foster for writing it. She only fudges a few of the words.

Oh my goodness. This is priceless. Here is a Venezuelan choir singing the Roger Wagner Chorale arrangement of "Oh Lemuel." With their accents. How darling. The way they sing the word "cotton." "Go down to the cotton fields/Go down, I say..."

I remember reading in the Wall Street Journal some years ago that campfire songs -- including such big Stephen Foster numbers as "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races" -- are disappearing from the public consciousness, possibly because of their political incorrectness, also because, well, kids learn less than they used to. That is too bad. Everyone should be able to hum those tunes. They are classics!

And they really bring the 19th century to life.


  1. I certainly remember some of these, and we sang them in elementary school, if I'm remembering correctly. I don't remember the "questionable" words, though; did I just block them out. (What I mean is that I DO know that those words were there, but I don't remember singing them!) Sometimes I fill them in on the words ... their eyes bug out when they hear some of them.

    My oboe students still get the tunes; some of these are in the basic oboe books kids continue to use. I usually ask them if they know the song. More often than not they've never heard of them. Just like they don't know any of the hymns in the old oboe books.

    These old tunes ... they bring back so many memories. (So does "Hey Jude", and the theme to "Get Smart" btw.) I wonder what my students' "memory triggers" will be. I haven't a clue!

  2. Mary Kunz Goldman - a question? Would you and your family sit around the table singing songs that spoke of the good old days of the concentration camps?