- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

At first blush, the music of Stephen Foster is an odd first choice for American Roots Publishing, a nonprofit group that’s trying to preserve the regional tang of American folk art, music and literature, past and present.

The handsome liner notes by Ken Emerson, author of “Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture,” tell of a national, not a regional, star. “Foster was the first great and distinctly American songwriter ….” He would “become America’s first full-time professional songwriter.”

In a prototypical sort of way, Foster, the composer of such slices of traditional Americana as “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna,” was the nation’s first rock star. He died young, at age 37, in January 1864, toward the end of the Civil War. He died violently, too, from a fall that gashed his throat. He was financially ruined, with just 38 cents in his wallet.

Neil Young sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Stephen Foster could relate.

But what’s regional about Stephen Collins Foster of Pittsburgh?

The folks at ARP, who herded an impressive roster of singers to pay tribute to the composer, believe Foster, though nationally popular, was a synthesizer of America’s regional and ethnic diversities.

Mr. Emerson writes, “He was the first to draw upon and stitch together the motley musics that settlers and slaves brought with them from Europe and Africa.”

Foster got his start in the business of minstrelsy, that objectionable form of popular musical theater that involved smearing one’s face with burnt cork and nastily caricaturing black Americans.

“Minstrelsy was a lot like rock ‘n’ roll,” Mr. Emerson says: It was Elvis shaking his hips and singing the blues 100 years early.

Minstrelsy was what it was, and “Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster” doesn’t condemn him for it. In fact, there’s evidence that he grew wise to its sordidness. No black woman had ever been called a “lady” in American song before Foster did so in “Nelly Was a Lady,” here performed by the young black blues revivalist Alvin Youngblood Hart.

It’s not clear whether Foster had a road-to-Damascus moment or whether he just was retooling his image for broader respectability. Here, Mavis Staples, the great R&B; and soul singer, exorcises all those ghosts with an outpouring of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” universalizing the “sigh of the weary.”

At 18 songs and 22 performers, “Beautiful Dreamer” is lively and unpredictable, almost necessarily uneven. With the daguerreotype, campfire-folk image of Foster’s music in mind, the goal was to restore the multicultural gumbo of the songs: the Scotch-Irish balladry of Appalachia, the polka craze imported from Prague, the banjo music of slaves.

Raul Malo of the Mavericks opens the tribute, appropriately, with the title track, and it’s a thing of beauty. Mr. Malo wraps his sonorous baritone around the song and makes you think Roy Orbison has come back from the dead.

Singer Alison Krauss, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, upright bassist Edgar Meyer and “newgrass” fiddler Mark O’Connor, follows with a solemn chamber piece, “Slumber My Darling,” an elegiac composition from Foster’s late period.

Each of the artists was given free rein to devise fresh arrangements of these oldest of old parlor tunes, and some of the twists come off better than others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the younger artists who show the most imagination and make the Foster standards sound most vibrant.

Folk legend John Prine — considered a marquee booking by ARP chief Tamara Saviano — turns in a boring “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight.” Fiftysomething improv jazz guitarist Henry Kaiser adds a postmodern touch to the Arabized “Autumn Waltz,” and it’s strangely inert.

In contrast, the Duhks, a Canadian prog-folk band, turns “Camptown Races” into a jittery, polyrhythmic island number. It’s splendid. The harmony singers of Ollabelle (featuring Band drummer Levon Helm’s daughter Amy Helm) blend sinuous countermelodies on “Gentle Annie.” Judith Edelman is young but sings like an old soul, if a little preciously, on “No One to Love.”

Michelle Shocked and guitarist Pete Anderson trip slightly with their take on “Oh! Susanna,” a bouncy acoustic shuffle that crumbles into a half-stab at psychedelia.

Roger McGuinn later pulls off that trick with the aplomb you’d expect of a guy who, 40 years ago, tried to fuse traditional American folk to space rock. Were it not for a lapping electronic beat, his “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” could have rolled straight off the Byrds’ “Younger Than Yesterday.”

Yet it sounds fussy next to Ron Sexsmith’s simple, stirring piano-and-voice “Comrades Fill No Glass for Me,” which closes the set. It’s an obscure bit of Fosterology, far more compelling than the expected fare of “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River).”

Mr. Sexsmith sings of drinking to “drown my soul in liquid flame,” “fame” and “blighted fortune.”

Today, we have a name for all that — celebrity. If VH1 were around in the 19th century, Americans no doubt would have been treated to “Stephen Foster: Behind the Music.”

It would be a cliche to say Foster was ahead of his time. Besides, the truth is, he was timeless.

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