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TV Preview: PBS celebrates the life and songs of Stephen Foster

Friday, April 20, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With no apologies to Michael Jackson, Western Pennsylvania native Stephen Foster is anointed "the original king of pop" by one of the historians interviewed in PBS's one-hour "American Experience" documentary on the life of the composer/lyricist.

Another interviewee explains the importance of studying the likes of Foster.

'American Experience: Stephen Foster'

WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday on WQED/WQEX.


"There's no way to understand what America is without understanding popular culture," says author Peter Quinn. "We're a people in search of each other. We come from different backgrounds. We have to find ourselves. And we find ourselves in popular culture. Foster's one of the architects of that common ground that we meet on, that popular culture where we sing the same music."

Indeed, "Stephen Foster" reveals the origins of songs like "Camptown Races," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Oh! Susanna" and other 19th-century popular music created by Foster. For some viewers, it may be a revelation that Foster's tunes were created as "minstrel music" to be sung by performers in black face.

Today the dialect -- "de" for the, "wedder" for weather -- seems racist, but at the time Foster was considered a reformer.

"We cringe, but what we don't realize was what Foster was writing was not actual spoken dialect," said Deane Root, director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh. Root is interviewed in the program and served as an adviser to the producers, who did much of their research at Pitt. "It was a blend between black and white vernacular speech of that time. Through dialect he was bringing people closer together."

In that day, Root said, there were derisive stereotypes directed toward people of all ethnicities -- Irish, Germans, blacks, any group that stood out as different.

"What Foster was trying to do was tone that down and make [this music] highly respectable," Root said in an interview this week. "He was trying to do away with trashy and really offensive words, and he was seen as writing to a much higher plane that was acceptable to anyone of any station of any social rank. In the context of his time, he was a reformer and not one of those who was creating negative images in any way. The images he was creating through his songs were highly positive human ones rather than demeaning ones."

Still, some viewers might be shocked and disappointed at the association between classic Americana and issues of race and class.

"I can imagine there are many people who will find this upsetting," Root said. "They feel uncomfortable at the association of racial issues with these old American songs they consider to be folk songs. They're so ubiquitous in American culture."

Still, Root said Foster's music provides an understanding of America.

"It was the first music written in the country that's still heard in this country on a daily basis," Root said. "It's had a continuing presence among all segments of American pop culture for 150 years, not just one class level, one race, one ethnic group or one geographic region, but all over the country. Even people immigrating to this country already know some of his songs."

"Stephen Foster" began as a project of WITF, the PBS station in Harrisburg, which later collaborated with "American Experience" to come up with the finished program. Some scenes were filmed in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery, where Foster is buried.

"This is the first documentary on Foster for a national audience, and it's the first national television program specifically on Foster," Root said.

It was Foster's ability to combine different musical elements -- ethnic music, opera, church music, Irish ballads, German songs -- that has kept his music alive, Root said. At the same time America became a melting pot, Foster created music that reflected that heritage.

"His themes were incredibly savvy, a blend of themes from all those other things," Root said. "The immediate impression [to people who lived at that time] was [that his music was] something familiar and slightly different. It wasn't identifiably 'other,' but spoke to them about their American condition."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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