Musicians From Milwaukee and Beyond Consider America’s First Great Songwriter for ‘The Foster Project’

Juniper Tar, Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks and Blueprint reflect on Stephen Foster

Jan. 29, 2013
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Stephen Foster penned some of the best-known songs of all time, including standards like “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” but that success didn’t translate to particular fortune. Foster died alone in 1864 in near poverty at age 37, having estranged himself from his family through his alcoholism. Nonetheless, his songbook outlived him. It was passed down from generation to generation, serving as one of the foundations of American folk music. Only a relative handful of people may know Foster’s name today, but among those that do, he’s lionized as America’s first great songwriter.

Some of the many musicians who have been inspired by Foster’s work, either directly or indirectly, will honor, deconstruct and respond to his songbook at an Alverno Presents program titled “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project,” Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre. Curated by Ryan Schleicher, and featuring his band Juniper Tar, the program will also include performances from Jon Langford (of The Mekons), Robbie Fulks, Christopher Porterfield (of Field Report), stage singer Bethany Thomas and the Rhymesayers rapper Blueprint, among others. Schleicher spoke with me about this unique performance, Foster’s songwriting legacy, and the role the racial climate of the 1800s had in shaping that legacy, for better or worse.

Can you give me a little bit of background on how the event came about?

Well, [Alverno Presents director] David Ravel and I have become pals over the years, and we tend to get together and have some drinks every now and then. He’s long been fascinated with Stephen Foster, so we talked about him over several months, discussing his life and how he created and spread his music, and how that sharing culture exists now. After a couple of months of talking to him, I eventually kind of got the hint that David wanted me to curate a show about him, so I volunteered.

What was your relationship with Foster’s songs before this idea was planted in your head?

I was probably a little more familiar than the average person. Most people just know “Oh! Susanna” and the hits, or the ones you learn in grade school. I’d never really dug too deep into his songbook before, because it’s a huge, huge catalog, and it’s kind of hard to dig in because there aren’t that many good recordings other than symphonic recordings or choral arrangements. So I had more than a casual interest in Foster, but I was by no means an expert.

Were there any songs you discovered in the process that really resonated with you?

Oh, about half of them [laughs]. Some of the more somber stuff, in particular, like “Slumber My Darling,” or the slower, downtempo stuff, like “Gentle Annie.” He had everything from lullaby-style songwriting to really heartbreaking, depressing, tragic songs.

Were you surprised that you were able to connect so fully to songs written so long ago?

Very much so. I think one of the things that resonates so much is just the darkness in his songs. Everybody from Woody Gutherie to Dylan owes a lot to him. His lyrics were just exceptional. He’s writing in Civil War times, and he really captured the darkness of mid-19th century life.

He’s also unique, because he’s one of the most prominent songwriters whose songs are better known than he is. Everybody knows his songs, but most people don’t know who wrote them.

Absolutely. That’s kind of one of the points of this show is that he’s the first American pop star, but nobody knows that he’s the first American pop star. They just know his songs are the first in the American popular canon.

With a lot of Foster’s songs, it’s hard to tell with him whether he was singing from first-hand experience or projecting a fabricated ideal of America.

I think both, for sure. He was a total alcoholic, so I think at times he was writing from personal experience on the dark stuff, and a lot of that comes through. He had a wife he was sort of estranged from for a long time, and that comes across, but a lot of his stuff is either idealized or the opposite of that—life at the time and its struggles and hardships. I think he represented a lot of that pretty well.

How did you go about curating this event, and attracting so many out-of-town names for it?

Mainly, I started with a list of 100 people. It included everybody from super big artists to local talent, and I kind of whittled it down based on budget and, well, budget [laughs]. But when compiling my original list, I just wanted people who I felt were thoughtful lyricists and thoughtful songwriters—people who when you listen to their music you get a sense of how smart and how careful they are. I also wanted artists from across different genres, because one of the themes running through the show is how race plays in Foster’s songs, and how he approached race in writing his songs, so I wanted different races representing and responding to that work.

Is that where Blueprint comes into play?

Blueprint and Bethany Thomas.

What are their responses to his songs? A lot of them were minstrel songs, right?

Yeah, a lot of them were written in the minstrel tradition, but he worked really hard to transcend that, too. I can’t imagine somebody in the mid-1800s writing songs while trying to be respectful to other races as human beings. You can see it in his work more than the rest of the minstrel tradition. There’s not a lot of simple stereotyping going on in his songs. A lot of those songs were trying to be written from a black perspective. That’s part of the reason he gets a bad rap from a lot of people who knew him, because his songs were popularized through minstrelsy, but he really, really struggled with that. He thought he wrote all of these other thoughtful songs, but the stuff he was known for at the time was the minstrel stuff.

Wasn’t that just a reflection of the time, though? So much popular music at the time was minstrel. That was almost the key to making a popular song back then.

And that’s one of the things that I want the show to convey. It was really the minstrel tradition, for as awful and horrendous as it could be, that for people like Foster was also a way to mix musical styles and cultures without being looked down upon. It allowed white people to engage with black music for the first time.

I’ve wondered if part of the reason so much of Foster’s songbook survives is that so much of it side-stepped minstrel tropes. So many American songs from that era were built around these nasty racial images that they’ve effectively been lost to time, because our sensibilities are so different now. So we’ve literally had to disown so much of the early American songbook, yet his songs got passed down.

Absolutely, and that’s because he was really conscious. If he was writing a song that was used in minstrelsy, he really wanted the lyrics to reflect an appreciation and a respect for those people as human beings, not just caricatures.

Can you talk about one of the more surprising pieces you have included in the program?

I think one of the more surprising elements will be a piece created by Aaron, my brother. He’s taking “Slumber My Darling” and applying really modern songwriting devices, with vocal loops and guitar loops and electronic sounds, to create a Stephen Foster songscape. It’s completely modern, so it’s going to kind of come out of nowhere, but it really represents how Foster’s songwriting can be, and has been, interpreted in any medium.


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