August 08, 2003

The Invention of Tradition

Listening to a tape about the life of Stephen Foster, 1826-1864. A Pittsburgh boy, a ninth child, born, schooled, and lived in Pittsburgh pretty much his entire life.

Yet this guy from Pittsburgh created an amazing amount of what we now think of as southern and western folk music: "The Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", "Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground", "Oh, Susannah!", "Camptown Races", and others.

What's a guy from Pittsburgh doing writing songs about the Swanee River? About Kentucky plantation mansions? About mining camps? And--most interesting--his songs seem to have been very popular not just in the relatively urbanized east, but in the south and west as well. The people they were written about seem to have grabbed them up with both hands as (idealized) depictions of how things were. And the (relatively) urbanized and urbane easterners grabbed onto them too--as authentic windows into the raw, alien, but exciting and fascinating cultures of the Slave South and the Wild West.

Truly, totally weird. We are in "the invention of tradition" territory.

Similar weirdness includes the fact that the words to the Christmas carol version of "Greensleaves"--"What Child Is This?"--were written by a late-nineteenth century Victorian trying to write something that would sound like Tudor dialect. "Why lies he in such mean estate?" indeed.

Posted by DeLong at August 8, 2003 08:54 AM | TrackBack


Lully, lullay.

"Aunt Jemima" pancake mix similarly made up a comfortable-for-some myth and ran with it. I think the marketer started by listening to a blackface minstrel show, in fact. There's a good book about it; Slave in a Box, by M.M. Manring (my Summary).

Posted by: clew on August 8, 2003 09:25 AM

I can't speak to any of the other songs, but having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, I can attest that My Old Kentucky Home actually exists. Foster's cousins owned the home, and he wrote the song after a visit. I've toured the place, which is actually in Bardstown, myself.

Posted by: Gregory on August 8, 2003 09:26 AM

Sorry, the kink to My Old Kentucky Home didn't come thru.

Posted by: Gregory on August 8, 2003 09:31 AM

Well, when Foster was born, Pittsburgh still had vestiges of its frontier self. Merriwether Lewis had left down the Ohio just 23 years before, and Foster's father founded Lawrenceville, a village outside of town - which is now more or less inner city. Point being, that's how small Pittsburgh still was. So I think he grew up in a rural/frontier milieu that gave him a lot of native empathy for the Southern & Western culture he captured.

My understanding is that, as a composer, he had something in common with Woody Guthrie, in that he could document an old song, reinvent an old song, or create a new song indistinguishable from old.

In Pittsburgh, across from the Stephen Foster Memorial (which is a museum & theater on the U Pitt campus), and right beside Carnegie Music Hall, is a statue of Foster, with a very un-PC Negro strumming a banjo at his feet. It's jarring to the modern eye, but recognizes, I think, the huge debt he owed to others, especially African-Americans.

Posted by: JRoth on August 8, 2003 10:41 AM

Why do teenagers in the US today mostly write rock and roll songs? Steven Foster wrote songs in the popular style of the era, the minstrel show. Africa has a rich cultural heritage of music and dance. In spite of the oppression of slavery music and dance remained an outlet for creative expression. This musical expression was copied by white entertainers and presented to audiences all over the US.

How likely was Puritan New England culture to produce a new music form? Much of American music has its roots in African music forms for a reason. The alternatives at the time were Christian hymns based on European classsical music, Scottish fiddle music or German Folk songs. The minstrel music had a sensuality and excitement that was missing in some of the other music forms.

Posted by: bakho on August 8, 2003 01:14 PM

This reminds me of a comment I once heard that the great "Literatura Gaucheza" (Cowboy Literature) of Argentina was written by portenos - people that lived in Buenos Aires. The reason for this is that Buenos Aires was the hub of commerce, even for gauchos, who would drive their cattle to the capital.

"Don Segundo Sombra" includes a passage in which the cattle are driven across La Matanza (The Slaughter) -which is now mostly a large slum- destined for Mataderos, which is now part of Buenos Aires proper. (It's a very pretty neighborhood, actually.)

I have a difficult time accepting that Literatura Gaucheza would have been possible without this interaction.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on August 8, 2003 02:25 PM

Indeed Bakho, what would American culture ever have been if it weren't for our african cultural influences? After all, the average black american has been here longer (in terms of generations) than the average white american. In that sense, it is natural that the cultural styles of a people were already existant before the waves of massive european immigration in the late 19th century transformed demographics. What, if anything, can the US lay claim to as a cultural innovation that didn't have some influence from the former slaves?

Posted by: non economist on August 9, 2003 09:09 PM

I'm told that Zane Grey, that grand old romanticist of the American west, had his roots in Zanesville, Ohio, and was a practicing dentist before he took up old west myth making. Sometimes a good story (or a good tune) makes its own authenticity.

Posted by: Bruce Garrett on August 11, 2003 06:43 AM

The lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" were written by a guy who had never been to a baseball game. I think the lyrics demonstrate that fact, and I've always held the song in contempt.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 11, 2003 09:15 AM

"What, if anything, can the US lay claim to as a cultural innovation that didn't have some influence from the former slaves?"

Blogging, for one. :-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 11, 2003 09:24 AM

How about Creedance Clearwater Revival & John Fogerty?

Singing about the bayous & the Missisippi when they're from the Bayou's of El Cerrito (close to Brad, actually)

Posted by: Tom on August 11, 2003 10:49 AM

The PBS series "American Experience" featured a biography of Stephen Foster last year. "Beautiful Dreamer, Foster's last song, published posthumously, has been recorded by Roy Orbison, Natalie Cole, and opera singers Marilyn Horne and Thomas Hampson, among others."

"Unable to arrest his downward spiral, Foster fell and injured himself in a Bowery hotel. He died three days later on January 13, 1864, a has-been at age 37. His worn brown leather purse contained 38 cents in pennies and scrip, and a scrap of paper on which he had written in pencil a song title or fragment of a lyric, "dear friends and gentle hearts."

A truly sad and shocking end to such a noble lyricist and talented composer.

Posted by: Don Majors on August 11, 2003 02:20 PM
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