Stephen Foster: Between Pittsburgh and Purgatory


Stephen Foster c.1860. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress (cc)

by Ed Simon

On July 4th in 1826, John Adams died in Quincy, Massachusetts, while hundreds of miles south, Thomas Jefferson died at his plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia. In between, at the western frontier town of Pittsburgh a baby named Stephen Foster was born, who though white, would grow up harboring the ambition to become the “best Ethiopian songwriter.”

The composer’s birthday evidenced auspicious numerology, for in entering the world on the Independence Day that that those last two revolutionaries exited, a certain dramatic transition was enacted. Jefferson and Adams, even with all of their ideological divergences, embodied a dry Enlightenment understanding of what the nation was to be, but Foster’s era was not one metaphorically presided over by Jefferson’s arid trinity of Bacon, Locke and Newton, but rather by a mixture of capitalism, carnival, crackpot religion, hucksterism, medicine show and tent revival. Foster was to be the one who drafted the soundtrack for that new America, a nation described by critic Greil Marcus as “that old, weird America.”

Not least of which, this was a land that had begun to thrill to the culture of the very people that the nation had enslaved; the cultural process which historian Eric Lott has succinctly described as “love and theft.” For all their differences, Jefferson and Adams were at their core Europeans, while Foster was exemplary of a completely new type called the American – with all of the attendant sins that that later word connotes.

Born on the eve of Andrew Jackson’s America, stained by strong-man populism and racial violence, Foster’s nation was one in which more than 1.5 million people – more than 15% of the population – were held in bondage. By the census year following the composer’s birth, the number of slaves would surpass two million, a reality that de Tocqueville described as defining a nation “covered with a layer of democratic paint,” but where the full depth of inequity and injustice couldn’t help but be visible.

This was the context for the composition of Foster’s melodies; the first American to earn his fortune entirely from his songs, including through performances and sale of sheet music, even as he would ultimately lose it all. Editors of the Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore duly inform us that Foster’s music was incredibly popular in the decades around the Civil War, yet today his tunes are so universal that Foster is “often branded indiscriminately as ‘traditional music.’” Songs such as “Oh! Susanna!,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Beautiful Dreamer” may not recommend themselves to many as much more than hokey remnants of the 19th Century, but they remain firmly entrenched in the American song canon – despite their often racially problematic content.

Defenders have argued that Foster’s music subtly encoded an abolitionist politics, yet when it came unto the true price of the cruelties of slavery, his songs are mute. Foster preferred rather to adopt the persona of the “Beautiful dreamer,” where “Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;/Sounds of the rude world heard in the day, /Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away.”

In Foster’s America, it was the toil of slaves that allowed dreams of moonlight and dewdrops, both literally and metaphorically, as the composer scoured the images, themes, and melodies of antebellum slavery (the better to shut out the whips and cries of the “rude world”). Though born in a northern free state, where politics often veered towards the abolitionist on account of the radical Quaker tradition that was Pennsylvanians’ inheritance, Foster is commonly misremembered as the bard of Southern plantation life, of fields “where the sugar-canes grow,” of a narrator who comes “from Alabama/With my banjo on my knee,” and who in mimicry of black vernacular is “Still longing for de old plantation,/And for de old folks at home.” Southern lyrics written in the haze of an almost prototypically northern industrial city.

Foster, it should be said, only ventured south of the Ohio River once in his life. Novelist Steve Erikson, in an essay about Foster, claims that his music’s “exquisite perversity… is that they’re steeped not in the American South [but] in a vision of it.” Foster’s introduction to the south came at the tutelage of his family’s biracial servant Olivia Pise, who when the future composer was a child accompanied her to a black church service in Pittsburgh, the first time he had ever heard the music he’d spend a career imitating.

According to Erikson, it’s these “wafts of magnolia, the unresolved American contradictions” that “rage in Foster’s music,” making this troubadour of what could be interpreted as offensive hoke still fascinating, especially because of his status as the first songwriter to make a living entirely from his music. Foster doesn’t offer us verisimilitude, but rather perfumed dreams. A cynic might claim that the fantasies of Foster, with his obscuring of the barbarism, savagery, and violence which made the material comforts of that society possible, are not just a darkly occluded dream, but rather a version of the American Dream.

Such an evil institution as slavery was bolstered by sentiments such as that of one of the men who passed on Foster’s birthday, the hypocritical sage who could craft the principle that “all men are created equal,” while holding that “in imagination [Africans] are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” Jefferson claimed that he saw no “poetry” among the women and men that he held in bondage. Apparently, the partisan of liberty never bothered to actually listen to the poetry of those women and men, some of whom were his own children, working in the fields of Monticello. Foster, some years after Jefferson’s death, would actually listen, while sitting next to Pise in one of the black churches that ministered to the population of freed slaves who had travelled north and made Pittsburgh their home.

Jefferson’s claim should be denounced not just in its inhumanity, but its almost exemplary inaccuracy – a fallacy that for all of his appropriation, especially for all of his appropriation, Foster couldn’t afford to make. In the early 20th Century W.E.B. Du Bois would claim that the “only real American music” was that which found its origin among enslaved Africans, and the tabulations of rag-time, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop which have defined our culture would bear out that observation. Even the banjo, so associated with lily-white country and bluegrass, has its origins as a west African instrument (as indeed country has African roots as well).

A special type of historical irony in Jefferson’s assertion, for only a half-century after the Declaration of Independence, and even with so many Americans enslaved, the wider culture already thrilled to the very poetry that Jefferson denied the existence of, even while they saw no inconsistency in continuing that enslavement.

Foster’s bottom line was such that he couldn’t deny the poetry (and the popularity) of songs based in black culture. The Martinique philosopher Frantz Fanon famously wrote of “Black Skin, White Masks;” American popular culture has often enacted the exact opposite formulation, and Foster through theft, guile, appropriation, and not a little bit of talent fashioned a black mask to sing the very poetry that Jefferson denied the existence of. During the year that the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter, it was with a stolen mask of “Old Black Joe” that Foster could sing in the imagined voice of a slave, transforming the degradations and horrors of bondage into a pastoral fantasy:

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”

Music critic John Leland has written that “If there is a central vein of American popular culture, it proceeds from these crude outpourings of racial fantasy.” It should be said that racial fantasy, then and as now, sold. To the point that in 1852 the Albany State Register could report that Foster’s hit “Old Folks at Home” was such that “Pianos and guitars groan it night and day; sentimental ladies sing it; sentimental young gentleman warble it in midnight serenades.” The ditty was roared out by boatman, “all the bands play it; amateur flue players agonize over it.” It’s grinded out by street organs “at every hour,” while “the chamber maid sweeps and dusts to its measured cadence.”

The reviewer continues to enumerate listeners and performers of Foster’s tune, including the butcher, the milk-man, and just so the reader never forgets the racialized score, he mentions that “not a ‘live darky,’ young or old, but can whistle, sing, dance, and play it;” Foster’s stolen rhythms performed back in the journalist’s vulgar display of minstrelsy.  This was the America in which Foster could sing “The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart, /With sorrow where all was delight;/The time has come when the darkies have to part:/Then my old Kentucky home, good night!”

Not coincidentally, and only a few years after Foster would be born, and a performer from New York’s Lower East Side named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice would invent one of the most disturbingly enduring of American archetypes, based on a cruel pantomime of a crippled, black stable hand, who in some accounts Rice met while on tour in Pittsburgh, and which would come to be known as the “Jim Crow” show. Rice and Foster where first of a type it would seem, for Leland identifies them as the germinating seeds in a family tree that would include “Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Mezz Mezzrow, Carl Van Vechten, Elvis and Eminem… the white boys who stole the blues.”

An 1867 eulogy for Foster from The Atlantic Monthly, written three years after Foster squandered his royalties and would die drunk in Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital with only 38 cents in his pocket, includes one account of such a theft of the blues at Rice’s first Jim Crow show, in Pittsburgh. The author soberly records the “entertainment” to be had at the expense of a black bellhop named Cuff who worked at the Griffith Hotel on Wood St., “an exquisite specimen of his sort.”

The author writes that “Rice, having shaded his own countenance to the ‘contraband’ hue, ordered Cuff to disrobe, and proceeded to invest himself in the case-off apparel… the extraordinary apparition produced an instant effect… The effect was electric.” And so, the effect has remained electric, as white performers from Rice to Miley Cyrus have stolen the proverbial “case-off apparel” of black artists. There’s “love and theft” again, though one would be forgiven for focusing more on the theft than the love.

As deeply problematic as Foster’s ambition was, for generations of Americans north and south, antebellum and postbellum, Foster succeeded in his desire to be celebrated as the “best Ethiopian songwriter,” even while his name has been obscured by the long history of subsequent American music which has eclipsed the racist minstrel tunes that scholar David S. Reynolds described as “the first distinctively American genre.” A dubious birth-right, for even as Lott has explained the complex ways in which this symbiosis of love and theft, in part, produced the fertile hybridity of American culture, the mélange of black and white which generated something wholly unique from the New World, minstrelsy is also intractably connected to the racist images that have been used to justify atrocity.

Scholar W.T. Lhamon, Jr. explains that the minstrel show, with its combination of grossly stereotypical music, dance, and humor, “provided talismans of blackness that people with more power could warp to their prejudices. And they did.” The grotesque, broad red smile and pearly teeth of the corked black-face “Jim Crow” character haunts American popular culture, and in the 19th Century the ballads and jigs that he shuffled to were often written by the songwriter born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, and despite their origins they remain recognizable, even if their author has faded into relative anonymity.

Foster is not particularly celebrated anymore in Pittsburgh, the city fathers content to honor more palatably modern figures like Andy Warhol or Fred Rogers. There is a Foster Street past the gabled 19th Century house where he was born (and which still stands); his hometown of Lawrenceville, once known for rowhouses where Polish steel workers lived, has now gentrified into a trendy hipster neighborhood.

About 30 miles south, as close to the Mason-Dixon line as the famed plantation songster ever spent any real time, and there once was a historical marker commemorating Foster’s brief attendance at our mutual alma matter of Washington College (today Washington & Jefferson), though the centuries-old building he took classes in was cleared shortly after my graduation to make way for a new science center.

In the Oakland section of Pittsburgh there is a modest museum in honor of Foster’s life, maintained as part of the Center for American Music, and housed next to the ornate neogothic skyscraper which centers the University of Pittsburgh, and that has the grandiose title of the “Cathedral of Learning.” And across Forbes Avenue, next to the Carnegie Library, there is a lacuna where until April 26th of this year a 10-foot-tall, 1,000-pound copper statue of the songwriter stood for close to eight decades.

Writing about the previously quoted eulogy of Foster in the 1867 Atlantic Monthly, Lott describes it as “something like a master text of the racial economy encoded in blackface performance,” which could just as fairly be said about the statue of the songwriter. Sculped in 1900 by an Italian artist named Giuseppe Moretti, whose most renowned work is the massive, strange, gremlin-like cast-iron statue of the titan Vulcan which presides over Birmingham, Alabama, the Stephen Foster memorial had several homes in Pittsburgh before finding itself on Forbes Avenue.

A fixture of the City Beautiful aesthetic movement as manifested in Pittsburgh, Moretti’s sculptures, such as the triumphant figures announcing the entrance to Highland Park or the bronze panthers on a Schenley Park bridge, dotted the Gilded Age city flush with capital and eager to announce itself as one of the great metropolises of industrial America.

Charmingly, the Foster memorial was supposedly financed with pennies contributed by local school children, and appropriately Moretti’s sculpture almost has the copper patina of a penny. The Foster statue, it should be said, is a fairly unremarkable bit of early 20th Century civic boosterism, indistinguishable from similar mediocre public statues erected to commemorate this or that worthy, in this or that city. No doubt the workman-like statue would have remained, unremarked upon and little noticed, save for one detail. For as Moretti chose to depict Foster, the songwriter stands proud and erect, taking notation as the amanuensis for his muse – a wild-eyed, grinning, banjo-picking, shoeless slave who sits at the composer’s feet.

Only the densest of apologists wouldn’t be able to understand why the Pittsburgh Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the statue, that when it was commissioned was admiringly described by an editor at the Pittsburgh Press as being a depiction of Foster “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet.” Despite a few protestations by modern admirers in the comments section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review (as commentators on internet articles are apt to do), the majority of Pittsburghers reacted with a collective shrug, unlike in many southern cities where similar monument removals have been met with opposition.

Rather the reaction on Forbes Avenue was such that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman would write that “To say that no one ‘loves’ the Stephen Foster sculpture is an understatement.” That same newspaper quotes in a different article the construction supervisor as saying “The only thing unexpected [was] that it went” smoothly. Activists since the Civil Rights movement have tried to have the statue taken down, with most recently there being an unsuccessful attempt in 2000 when a mayoral task force indefinitely tabled the issue. It took the wider movement of targeting Confederate memorials to provide the momentum to remove a statue that the always trenchant and hilarious blogger Damon Young described as “The most racist statue in America.”

Young says that Uncle Ned as sculpted by Moretti is “the most ridiculous magical Negro you’ll ever see,” an example of racism that is so “scenery-chewing and over-the-top ridiculous… that you suspect it was devised in a ‘racism factory.’” Indeed, there is something so exceedingly racist about the statue that a facetious argument could be proffered that the absurdity of depiction is inadvertently an enactment of a certain anti-racist lesson, for Moretti’s creation ironically literalizes the precise exclusionary logic that has so long fueled American popular culture.

The slave at Foster’s feet, who is supposedly “Old Ned,” one of his most celebrated characters, seemingly lacks in either agency, notational literacy, or his own inner life. Yet he is the true author of these tunes, and Foster who gathers the accolades and wealth is merely the transcriber. Foster’s bronze face is thus that of Pat Boone covering Little Richard, of Bill Halley performing the songs of Big Joe Turner, of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page registering a copyright for Led Zeppelin on Delta blues numbers written decades before.

Even in the 19th Century some could acknowledge that Jefferson’s claim regarding the non-existence of worthy art among slaves was preposterously wrong, with the transcendentalist and critic Margaret Fuller prefiguring Du Bois when she admitted that “All symptoms of [melodic] invention are confined to the African race.” An anonymous author in Horace Greeley’s abolitionist newspaper The New York Tribune similarly asked “Why may not the banjoism of a Congo, [or] an Ethiopian… aspire to an equality with the musical and poetical delineators of all nationalities?” Yet even the progressive politics of Massachusetts intellectuals and New York abolitionists only went so far, as that same writer notes that “Absurd…may seem negro minstrelsy to the refined musician,” and even our great American bard of diversity Walt Whitman, who was a fervid fan of minstrelsy, says that the topics of black life are a “subject generally considered ‘low.’”

For intellectuals attracted to black art, but who recoiled at black lives, such was the benefit of rationalization afforded by offensive stereotype, of the black man as “magic”, who from Uncle Tom through Bagger Vance has haunted American popular culture as a home-grown Noble Savage. He is the comforting, unthreatening, desexualized, simple-minded Ned of Foster’s jig and Moretti’s sculpture; an archetype on which the learned establishment, with anxiety over the African origins of American culture, could cast an unlearned and untutored primitive, who with almost mystical alacrity would act as the dusky muse, as the primogeniture for works which would be polished to a pearly sheen by sophisticates.

Whitman exclaimed that “negro singing altogether proves how singly golden talent can be spread over” and that the “coarseness” of such art can be “imbued with the great genius” of the (white) artist willing to pilfer them. This was the view of Foster himself, who with gross condescension wrote that his goal was to “build up taste… among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order,” so that ultimately he and his (white) audience will spiritually benefit from the mask of blackness while acquiring none of the dangers of station which actual blackness implied.

This is perhaps the central drama, as well as the central ethical problem, of American popular culture. How does a profoundly racist society reconcile itself to the reality that its greatest cultural contributions were born from its most marginalized communities? And how do we reconcile, and eliminate, the structural inequities and injustices that are forced upon those communities by the very society that thrills to their art? With the burnt cork of the minstrel show in mind, Frederick Douglas had a harsh appraisal of those performers, they are the “filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

There is an obscenity to the whole of the thing: white performers filching black melodies, used to mock those very same black lives from where those songs originated. In turn, those same songs, and stories, and images become bricks in the massive wall of white supremacy which has delineated the unseen internal borders of this country before the first slave disembarked at Jamestown.

A complexity to this issue though, as any issue worth considering must be complex. “Theft” is at the core of our American story, but Lott importantly reminds us that so is “love.” That the originators of black art have historically received not the credit is a clear injustice – Uncle Ned still awaits his royalties long after Foster cashed the check. But to speak only of appropriation is to forget the potent politics of empathy. Foster’s portrayals of black women and men are simplistic and offensive, but they’re also not inhuman.

Reynolds claims that “Foster broke with the almost uniformly racist tone of previous minstrel fare, portraying African-Americans as capable of sorrow, fear, hope, pain, nostalgia.” Erikson concurs, arguing that Fosters songs in “their own white way try to come to grips with a growing understanding that the antebellum beast of burden is a human being.”

No less than Douglass, who could provide such appropriate and withering condemnation of black-face performers, wrote in 1855 that Foster penned “heart songs,” where the “finest feelings of human nature are expressed.” In Douglass’ estimation, songs like “Old Kentucky Home” and “Uncle Ned” can make the “heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”

Some abolitionists had a less sanguine perspective, with the father of black nationalism Martin Delaney repurposing the melody and lyrics of his fellow Pittsburgher to entirely different ends. Delaney, whom it should be noted unlike Foster (until very recently) has no major memorial in his adopted city, was a co-publisher alongside Douglass of the abolitionist North Star, and would ultimately go on to become the first black field officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Lott explains that Delaney’s 1859 novel Blake; or, the Huts of America imagines a massive slave insurrection led by the titular character, part of which involves “a complex reinvention of the minstrel tradition.”

As part of the narrative of Blake, Delaney “makes guerilla appropriations of Stephen Foster plantation melodies, giving them new and often parodic lyrics, and this way furnishes his rebels with songs of revolution.” Moretti’s depiction of Old Ned might have him with vacant eyes and servile toothless grin, but Delaney liberates him to sing to the melody of Foster’s song very different lyrics: “Hand up the shovel and the hoe-o-o-o! /I don’t care whether I work or no! /Old master’s gone to the slaveholder’s rest – /He’s gone where they all ought to go!”

What such history makes manifest is the difficulty in representation, and the risks too. We’re still bedeviled by the question of the ethics of white artists representing black lives, and how we’re to properly contextualize and interpret such things, as witnessed by the controversy surrounding The Nation’s publication of Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem written in black vernacular last month.

Carlson-Wee’s “How-To” led to both condemnation and defense, with a particular irony in the closing lines about black invisibility as spoken by his homeless narrator, who says “It’s about who they believe/they is. You hardly even there,” but of course, as written by a white MFA graduate. Pointing to the dearth of black voices in the overwhelmingly white publishing industry, critics legitimately asked why The Nation chose to print a poem in the voice of a black character as imagined by a white poet, instead of extending the opportunity to promote the work of a writer who is a member of an under-represented minority.

Other critiques questioned the very idea that Carlson-Wee would have any right at all to imagine the inner thoughts of such a character, with scholar Roxane Gay tweeting that white writers should “stay in your lane.” The aesthetic merits of Carlson-Wee’s poem can be debated. Perhaps as with Foster’s lyrics, the poetry in “How-To” is ham-fisted, reductionist, and obfuscating – and then again, perhaps it isn’t. Gay’s argument is understandable, but there is a risk at taking her injunction to its extreme, where whole portions of imaginative empathy are de facto cordoned off because of an individual author’s deficit of experience. While remembering the economics of who gets to speak on behalf of themselves when, there should be caution in making rules that are too absolute.

What is undeniable, and the clearest of injustices, is that when white mouths speak in black voices it has historically involved the erasure of actual examples of the later. Our culture hasn’t even begun to grapple with the enormity of that theft, of that pilfered inheritance. As Confederate statues rightly come down, we are pressed into the service of considering who is to replace them.

Regarding Pittsburgh’s strange plantation troubadour, Norman suggests that “if there really was any interest in honoring Uncle Ned and the Negro folk tradition… they could just as easily have erected a statue to Ned and put Foster at Ned’s feet,” explaining that “that would’ve been a truer representation.” An interesting suggestion; the mayor’s office has decided an equally admirable course of action of honoring one of six black women, including Delaney’s wife, with a website set up to let Pittsburghers vote on whom they think is worthy (a particularly contemporary method of crowd sourcing racial justice).

As a modest suggestion, perhaps the city should consider some kind of memorial to Olivia Pise, the servant who first took Foster into the black church and thus actually inspired the entirety of his musical career. Such a memorial would require an abstract design, because to the best of my knowledge there are no paintings of her, no drawings or daguerreotypes. For the woman who so influenced America’s first original songwriter there is scarcely anything in the way of biographical information, reflecting that conjecture of Virginia Woolf’s from A Room of One’s Own that “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Perhaps one way of beginning the necessary labor, the necessary justice, of acknowledging those deep currents of culture which birthed America is to memorialize those responsible for it, for those whom we don’t have painting, drawing, or photograph. Right now, Moretti’s statue of Foster rightly sits hidden in a warehouse near Highland Park. Meanwhile, the spot on Forbes Avenue where it once stood remains empty, though in all the ways that matter, it’s really always been empty.

About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this December.