Various Artists

Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster

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If ideas move forward on the shoulders of giants, and that is certainly true in the world of American pop music, then Stephen Foster's shoulders are the ones at the bottom of the heap, because he is the first truly American songwriter. Drawing both from the transplanted song traditions of the European émigrés and the rhythmic sophistication of African-American spirituals and folk pieces, Foster cobbled together a truly multicultural base for popular American music in the 1840s, turning out such enduring compositions as "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home" (probably best known as "Swanee River"), "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Oh! Susanna," and "Old Kentucky Home," pieces that dressed up aspects of the frequently risqué and racist minstrel tradition in fine new clothes (with the offensive parts thankfully excised). Foster was also the first American songwriter to get royally fleeced by the music business, and he died in 1864 with only 38 cents to his name, a forgotten resident of the Bowery. Foster was the founder of the pop music you hear on your car radio, whether it's jazz, country, rock, or rap, because all of these forms draw on the cross-thatching of traditions that Foster first joined into a single stream of American music nearly 150 years ago. This interesting collection of Foster songs by an assortment of country, folk, and pop performers points out how versatile (and how exceedingly lovely) these pieces continue to be. A song like "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai," done here by BR5-49, even exhibits eerie postmodern sensibilities, right down to its hard-to-pin-down ironic tone, and one could easily imagine Randy Newman having written it. A version here of the often-maligned "Camptown Races" (just remember the rendition in the movie Blazing Saddles) by the Duhks restores its inherent polyrhythmic richness, while Mavis Staples brings gospel wisdom to the elegantly sad and hopeful "Hard Times Come Again No More." Roger McGuinn turns "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" into a lost Byrds' classic, and it is interesting to recall that the Byrds recorded Foster's "Oh! Susanna" for their second album in 1966. Foster's songs have all too often been viewed through the lens of nostalgia (a device Foster deliberately employed and willingly exploited), but their deceptively simple melodies and rich cultural histories full of merging rhythms from different continents make them a good deal more than that, not only the first true American songs, but also among the best. Their amazing longevity proves the point, because in pop music nothing survives without utility.

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