The songs of Stephen Foster have stood the test of time. A century and a half after the death of the songwriter Stephen Foster, his songs are still sung by today’s artists. Although he died penniless, Foster left to Americans a rich legacy of song lyrics and music.
Born and also buried in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephen Foster is sometimes mistakenly believed to be a southerner. This is due to the lyrics of songs like “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Folks at Home”, state songs for Kentucky and Florida respectively.
Stephen Foster helped to make popular the “honky tonk” style of easy to sing, danceable songs which still influences country music. Foster himself was influenced by the minstrel and circus clown Dan Rice, a very witty jokester as familiar to Mark Twain as he was to Stephen Foster.
It is hard to say which of Stephen Foster’s songs is most loved. Is it the song “Oh, Susanna” or “Camptown Races”? “Camptown Races” is a fun song with lyrics about horse races in the town of Camptown, Pennsylvania. The familiar lyrics “Gwine to run all night/ Gwine to run all day” appear in a song by the band Squirrel Nut Zippers called “The Ghost of Stephen Foster”. An amusing cartoon video available on youtube.com goes along with this song.
A quick search of most Stephen Foster song titles on youtube is sure to bring up several versions of the song. Stephen Foster lyrics are public domain. Anyone with voice, guitar or banjo can perform a Stephen Foster song. Just get the lyrics right please.
The lyrics to “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” are beautiful on the tongue of a talented singer and poignant on the lyric “Borne, like a vapor, on the summer hair” This song was parodied Al Yankovic style by the Chipmunks on the early 1960’s The Alvin Show.
Singers not only perform and parody Stephen Foster songs, they also use his lyrics as inspiration for their own songs. “My Old Kentucky Home” by Johnny Cash has different lyrics and music by Randy Newman, but the song’s chorus lyrics echo Foster’s version. The lyrics to “My Kentucky Home” by Nappy Roots also allude to the Kentucky sunshine in Foster’s lyrics.
Only a voice and a string instrument are needed to produce a Stephen Foster song. Both Bob Dylan and James Taylor do acoustic versions of Foster’s song “Hard Times Come Again No More”. The lyrics of this song resound today: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears/ While we all sup sorrow with the poor.”
Another Foster song that pulls at heart strings is “Beautiful Dreamer” sung by Bob McGrath or Marilyn Horne. There is also a magnificent “Beautiful Dreamer” banjo solo on youtube. In 2005 the CD Beautiful Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster won a Grammy. The CD is a collection of Foster songs performed by popular singers like John Prine.
Stephen Foster songs are loved in America and around the world. What could be more international than the song “Old Black Joe” being sung by a Welsh band (Crazy Cavan) to a French audience
who know the lyrics? It seems clear that the songs and lyrics of our beloved Stephen Foster will still be known a hundred fifty years from now.