In 1850, after the success of “O! Susannah” in pirated editions convinced him to give up bookkeeping, Stephen Collins Foster became American songwriting’s first professional. Fourteen years later, he was its first tragic failure: Having sold off his early, valuable copyrights, he died in penury after collapsing in a Bowery flop. In between, he put his name to a handful of melodies and lyrics—”Camptown Races,” “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Folks at Home”—that are still with us, like half-remembered ghosts of the 19th century haunting the 21st.
Though Foster’s songs course through the culture from Derby Day to doorbells, they’re rarely performed by contemporary artists. Previous collections by legit singers Joan Morris and Jan DeGaetani inflated Foster into a capital-C composer; Beautiful Dreamer attempts to haul him back to earth. The two instrumental pieces here sound irrevocably dated (despite Henry Kaiser’s scorched-earth solo on “Autumn Waltz”), but the vocal works adapt well to a range of rootsy but not wholly retro styles: country (Raul Malo, Grey De Lisle), folk-rock (Roger McGuinn’s gauzy “Jeannie”), and, too often, public-radio Americana (“Slumber, My Darling,” with Mark O’Connor, Allison Krauss, and Yo-Yo Ma). If this disc proves anything, it’s that the reasons musicians avoid Foster aren’t musical.
The entity in the woodpile, of course, is race. Foster was a non-performer, and his direct involvement with blackface minstrelsy has often been overstated. Still, he tailored material with the requisite vocabulary—”yaller” and worse—for use by Edwin Christy’s troupe and other “Ethiopian delineators.” Compilation producers Steve Fishell and David Macias negotiate this minefield gingerly, as they should: No good could come of unearthing “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.” Those songs written in minstrelsy’s invented slave dialect (“ribber,” “souf”) are performed in standard English, which is fair enough, since the propriety-minded Foster later dropped the form’s crudest devices himself.
Not all of Foster’s songs can be saved from their demeaning origins. The Duhks neatly graft “Camptown Races” to the rhythm of “Iko Iko”—and, by extension, to more deeply rooted call-and-response forms—but its “Doo-dah! Doo-dah!” refrain still gives off a whiff of burnt cork. And if all Foster’s output resembled the cockfight-themed “Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai” (no less troubling in the hands of novelty-tonkers BR-549) or even “O! Susannah” (bent out of shape by Michelle Shocked and a multi-tracked Pete Anderson), he’d be an embarrassment, not an influence. On the other hand, if he’d composed only pretty schlock like “Gentle Annie” and “No One to Love,” he’d be forgotten entirely.
Foster’s lasting significance lies in songs whose African American protagonists are people, not stock grotesques. Mourning a “dark Virginny bride” as a lady distinguishes “Nelly Was a Lady” from nearly everything in the blackface repertoire, as does its dignified melody. In “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight” and “Old Folks at Home,” plain homesickness lies behind now indigestible nostalgia for the plantation system. Foster’s slaves and former slaves are lachrymose, morbid, and invariably passive; that is, they’re exactly like his white protagonists. (For every “Nelly Was a Lady,” he wrote five laments for pale little dead girls.) Foster wasn’t motivated by humanism, but by the wish to strike a balance between minstrelsy and the parlor ballads favored by pianola-playing ladies, American pop’s first mainstream. His own politics were “Copperhead”—pro-Union, anti-abolition—but his songs worked against his own interests; even Frederick Douglass allowed that they could “awaken the sympathies for the slave.”
Fittingly, these are just the songs that elicit convincing singer-songwriter performances. Neither John Prine nor Alvin Youngblood Hart are in terrific voice these days, but their readings of “Kentucky” and “Nelly,” both backed by roughed-out string bands, bring the lyrics’ weary pathos into tight focus. The inevitable trip down the Swanee River is a plusher affair, but David Ball cuts clean through the arrangement’s showboat accordion and piano, sounding more like Rufus Wainwright than a Nashville hand. This leaves “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Based on the Anglo-Irish “Wearing of the Green,” Foster never classed this as a “plantation song,” but it’s been revived as folk blues by Bob Dylan and parlor ballad by Kate McGarrigle. The lyrics offer empathy—”we all sup sorrow with the poor”—but little hope. They’re also notably secular—Foster cranked out hymns for quick cash in his last years, but never got religion himself.
All this makes “Hard Times” a strange but inspired choice for pop-gospel legend Mavis Staples. At 64, her voice is weathered but huge, cleaving the written choruses’ single held “Oh!” into a weary minor third. As riveting as Staples’s churchy interpretation is, it leaves intact the sense that the song isn’t pleading with God, but with worldly suffering itself—not just Foster’s “hard times,” but our own.