Monday, August 11, 2014

Stephen Foster's mega-hit songs, and why we hear them out of context

Did you ever learn the songs "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna, "Hard Times Come Around No More," or "Old Folks at Home"? If you live in the United States, or even anywhere else in the world, you've probably sung them many times. We still sing them all the time and teach them to our children, which is pretty amazing for songs whose composer, Stephen Foster, died 150 years ago.

Chances are, however, you'd didn't learn the original lyrics of these songs. That's because these songs, like most of the songs Steven Foster wrote, were written for blackface minstrel shows. These shows, the most popular form of American entertainment in the mid- to late 1800s, featured white performers putting on black makeup (called blackface) and acting as caricatures of African-Americans. If you are wondering if this was racist, yes it was. But it was so lucrative and pervasive that African-Americans would put on minstrel shows too, usually donning blackface themselves and acting out the caricatures. While much of the minstrel show was comedy routines and slapstick, music was an instrumental part of these shows, which were the forerunners of vaudeville or variety shows of the 20th century.

A 1900 example of blackface on a white actor.

What's interesting to me is that the majority of Americans today don't know that such shows existed, much less that they were very, very popular (and perhaps surprisingly more in the North than the South). For good reasons, we've given ourselves cultural amnesia.*

Back to the topic of original lyrics, the versions of minstrel songs we learn today have been scrubbed clean of the racism and "African-American" dialect in which they were originally written. Also, original subtitles such as "Ethiopian melody" have been removed. Originally, however, minstrel songs were sung by stock characters, much like in the Italian commedia dell'arte, acting out scenarios. These stock characters were often African-Americans, ignorant, carefree, and happy to do the work put in front of them by their masters. When thought about in this context, minstrel songs take on completely different meaning. For example, instead of being fun nonsense songs, "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown races" poke fun of the singer, who is seen as ridiculous, while "Hard Times Come Again No More" can be seen as even more poignant when seen from a slave perspective or a serious moment in the midst of comedy.

Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000) put blackface in a modern context

Now, I'm not advocating going back to racist attitudes or performances, nor am I advocating that Stephen Foster's songs should be banned because they are offensive (though many are, in their original form), but I do think it is good to look back and realize the original context a piece of art, why it became popular, and why it has continued to be popular. In the case of Stephen Foster's tunes, I think they continue to be popular because 1) the melodies are memorable and catchy, easy for children to learn but complicated enough to keep an adult's attention, 2) they convey what we see as old-timey "American" points of view, and 3) they were Western songs that adopted elements, however small, of African-American music, creating something new. Popular music as we know it today would probably be very different without the dominance and popularity of blackface minstrelsy and the style of songs that it produced.

Vocab: lyrics, minstrelsy, vaudeville, melody, commedia dell'arte

*Other well-known songs that came out of blackface minstrelsy include "Hello My Baby," "Old Joe Clark," "Shortin' Bread," and anything about Bill Bailey.

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