STEPHEN FOSTER Album pays tribute to American folk songwriter
He realized the songs in minstrel shows were tasteless.
By RANDY LEWIS
LOS ANGELES TIMES
HOLLYWOOD -- His classic songs grew out of one of the greatest periods of racial and social upheaval in this nation's history and are so embedded in America's musical fabric they can seem more the product of folk tradition than the pen of one man.
Yet his name, unlike those of such musical disciples as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, often draws more puzzled looks than instant recognition.
That's the trouble with being Stephen Foster, widely considered the first quintessentially American songwriter, whose music Dylan, among others, has cited as a profound influence on his own.
"A lot of people I respect musically are unclear about who Foster is," says L.A.-based singer-songwriter Grey DeLisle. She's one of nearly two dozen acts on the new tribute album "Beautiful Dreamer -- The Songs of Stephen Foster," which spans such widely known compositions as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races" and "Hard Times Come Again No More," along with less frequently performed tunes, including "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai," "No One to Love" and "Nelly Was a Lady."
To Steve Fishell, who produced the album with David Macias, the most interesting aspect of Foster's career was his shift away from catering to the minstrel shows popular in the 1800s, when white performers would smear their faces with burnt cork and offer caricatures of blacks as entertainment.
'Had an epiphany'
"He had an epiphany in the middle of his career when he realized these minstrel songs he'd been writing had been tasteless," Fishell said. "Some of those lyrics are very offensive today. But he came to realize that and went so far as to withhold songs from established artists like the Christy's Minstrels. ... Foster said, 'Cut out these [offensive] songs or I won't give you any of my new material.' ... That was important and influential, and it made a difference in the way African Americans were perceived later on."