Stephen Foster: Discovering America's First Great Songwriter
By Rob Patterson
"The songwriter is the fuel that drives the car that is the Country Music industry," said Beth Nielsen Chapman, one of the artists featured on Grammy-nominated Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster.
"If you don't put gas in the engine, the car isn't going anywhere," Chapman said.
Beautiful Dreamer, which is nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, takes listeners back to the beginning of American songwriting. Foster was America's first full-time professional tunesmith. He died 140 years ago with 38 cents in his pocket, but a rich legacy lives on in the hundreds of songs he wrote.
"I think all Americans know Stephen Foster songs," said Tamara Saviano, President of American Roots Publishing, the non-profit organization that released Beautiful Dreamer as its first project. "If you hum a few bars of 'Oh! Susanna,' 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' or 'Camptown Races,' people of all ages and all walks of life in America know the songs. But if you ask them who wrote them, most people have no idea. And that is the reason why we did this."
Saviano, a veteran music journalist, formed American Roots Publishing to issue important works of American culture neglected by the commercial market. She's betting that niche projects like the Foster tribute CD will find an audience.
Tom Frouge, Vice President of American Roots Publishing and Tamara Saviano, Founder and President of American Roots Publishing. Photography courtesy of American Roots Publishing
Mavis Staples with producer Steve Fishell (left), who also played acoustic Hawaiian guitar on the track, along with Matt Rollings (piano) and Buddy Miller (tremolo baritone guitar) at Nashville's Sound Emporium where they recorded "Hard Times Come No More" for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. Photography courtesy of American Roots Publishing
The board of directors of American Roots Publishing includes actress Bobbie Eakes, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, Rider University's Chair of American Studies Jack Sullivan, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, noted music critic and author Dave Marsh, and music industry veterans Steve Fishell, Tom Frouge, Steve Garvan, Cameron Strang and Kathi Whitley.
The album features BR5-49, David Ball, Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss (accompanied by Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor), Raul Malo, John Prine and others.
"There are 18 songs on the album, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," Saviano said of Foster's catalog.
The project was suggested to Saviano by David Macias of Emergent Music Marketing, who went on to co-produce Beautiful Dreamer with Saviano and Fishell, an A&R executive at Sugar Hill Records. Saviano was surprised when she confirmed that a contemporary collection of Foster songs hadn't already been released.
Dale Cockrell, Professor of Musicology and American and Southern Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and an expert in 19th Century American music, agreed that a Foster tribute album was overdue.
"If you took all of the notes performed, and you counted them up and divvied them up by composer, Stephen Foster would be the most performed musician in the history of humankind," Cockrell said. "It's not just an American phenomenon. ... I've heard Stephen Foster sung in Russian, in Zulu, in Japanese. I was once giving a lecture on Stephen Foster to a group of Chinese scholars who were visiting the United States, and I punched the tape player and 'Oh! Susanna' came on and they all started singing along."
"He invented the notion of being a professional songwriter," Cockrell continued. "He completely changed the way we think about American culture, musical culture, and musical commerce. One thing I really like about this album is that it becomes clear that in Foster we can find whatever we want to find. We can find the elements for a Country Music style, a bluegrass style, a rock style, a jazz style. Foster's music synthesized the American experience to a point where it's still pertinent."
Cockrell also points out that Foster "started the movement towards putting the most important musical material in the chorus as opposed to the verses, where it had been for hundreds of years." And yes, Foster invented the hook, too.
Performers on the tribute CD said Foster's songs stand up.
Chapman, a successful songwriter, chose a Foster song that had never been recorded, "In The Eye Abides The Heart."
"I was so delighted to find this song because I loved what it said," Chapman said. "To have that large a body of work completely adaptable into today is a real mark of genius. Here's a man who, all this time later, his songs are still tremendously valuable to us."
The song features Gabe Rhodes on the pump organ and the glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Ball chose "Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)," one of Foster's best-known songs, because it spoke to his heritage.
"I'm from the Deep South and I really identified with the song," Ball said. "The song just kind of lifts the weight off of you."
Ball feels a personal connection to Foster.
"I have an old book that has Stephen Foster songs in it," he said. "I remember reading about how he would walk in the woods and songs would come to him. And I just identified with that, because that's exactly what I would do - get quiet and get out walking way out somewhere in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden I would be humming a melody."
In an interview with the L.A. Times last spring, Bob Dylan reflected on how he learned to write songs. "Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster," Dylan said.
Beautiful Dreamer features musicians and instruments from around the world. Sessions took place in seven cities. Other artists featured on the CD include Will Barrow, Grey De Lisle, The Duhks, Judith Edelman, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Henry Kaiser, Roger McGuinn, Ollabelle, Ron Sexsmith, Michelle Shocked with Pete Anderson, and Mavis Staples.
Kaiser's instrumental "Autumn Waltz" showcases Robin Petrie on the santour, a 17th century instrument native to Turkey, Iran and Iraq and similar to the modern-day hammered dulcimer. The track also features percussionist Mark Bell on the davul or Turkish bass drum; the riqq, an Egyptian tambourine; and the Persian toumbak or wooden hand drum.
Some artists went to great lengths to create a timeless setting. De Lisle recorded her vocals through vintage microphones and recording gear, then mastered directly to vinyl and finally, re-played the vinyl phonograph disc and recorded it digitally. One can hear the needle drop at the top of her track.
Beautiful Dreamer is a momentous launch for the Nashville-based American Roots Publishing, and a fund-raiser toward Saviano's goal of supporting "the music and books and art and film that should be produced because they are an important part of our cultural heritage." In the works are a novel by Texas Country rocker Joe Ely, a book of photos and essays by John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tracing his career, and a memoir/DVD by The Staple Singers.
Meanwhile, countless new listeners are rediscovering Foster's songs and learning about him thanks to Beautiful Dreamer.
"This is one project that is long overdue," said Chapman, "and I am so happy that a bunch of people are going to hear these songs that might not have otherwise."
© 2004 CMA Close Up News Service
Photography courtesy of American Roots Publishing