Stephen Foster, 19th-Century American Popular Song, and the Politics of Race

GO298 Elections Through Music, Art, and Film

I.   Foster's Biography and Two Song Styles

As an introduction to Foster's life and music, read a very brief article from the New Yorker. Pay special attention to: Foster's place in American popular music; to the two distinct song types that Foster wrote; and to and issues of race in Foster's music.

  • Was there anything in the article that was surprising or even shocking to read in the pages of the New Yorker?

II.   Foster and the Minstrel Song

A. One of the main song types cultivated by Stephen Foster was the minstrel song, a genre with a problematic history when it comes to matters of race. As an introduction to the history of the minstrel show in America read the first 5 paragraphs of the "American Minstrelsy" article from the New Grove History of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., i.e., stop before the paragraph that begins, "Shows from this classic age of blackface minstrelsy . . . "

B. Next study a primary source: the first published edition of Foster's "Camptown Races," a well known minstrel song whose tune was used in a campaign song for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential race. Study the title page and read the song's lyrics carefully.

C. Finally, watch a somewhat shocking performance of "Camptown Races" in the context of a blackface minstrel show, from a 1940s Al Jolson movie.

  • What were the main elements of a 19th-century minstrel show?
  • What two characters did "Daddy Rice" invent for the minstrel stage?
  • What are the most striking features of the lyrics in the sheet music to "Camptown Races"?
  • What is the song about? Does it tell a coherent story?
  • Which of Rice's two characters do you think is the persona being depicted in "Camptown Races"?
  • What elements of the song and its performance derogate and demean blacks?
  • Do you think that any elements of the minstrel show conveyed veiled empathy or admiration for African-American culture?
  • Are there types of music today that resemble the minstrel tradition in some way(s)?
  • What qualities of the melody to "Camptown Races" might have led to it being used as the tune of a Lincoln campaign song?

III.   Foster and the 19th-Century Parlor Song

Next listen to an example of what Stephen Foster called his "other type of music," a parlor song performed in this Youtube video by the incomparable Mavis Staples. Such songs would typically have been performed not on stage, but from sheet music in the parlors of middle-class families. The performance is amazing; the vocal style and piano accompaniment are naturally influenced by her background as a gospel singer.

  • What is the main theme of the song's lyrics?
  • How does the music of this parlor song compare to that of the minstrel song, "Camptown Races"?

IV.   A Crucial Contemporary Document

Read the excerpt below from a letter that Stephen Foster wrote to the minstrel performer Edwin P. Christy on May 25th, 1852. For a small sum, probably five dollars, Foster had allowed Christy’s name to appear on the sheet music as the composer "Old Folks at Home," one of Foster's most famous songs, and one that starts to blur the distinctions between a minstrel song and a parlor song. After the song became a huge commercial success, Foster had second thoughts and sought to restore his name to the title page. Here is his request to Christy to back out of their business deal.

As I once intimated to you, I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs [Ethiopian=minstrel], owing to the prejudice against them by some, which might injure my reputation as a writer of another style of music [i.e. Foster's parlor songs], but I find that by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for Ethiopian songs among refined people, by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order. Therefore I have concluded to reinstate my name on my songs and to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame, at the same time that I will wish to establish my name as the best Ethiopian song-writer. But I am not encouraged in undertaking this so long as “The Old Folks at Home” stares me in the face with another’s name on it.

Next read the first few pages of an article on Foster (by a very distinguished scholar :) that discusses what many scholars have made of Foster's letter to Christy.

  • What does Foster's desire to get his name back on the title page to "Old Folks at Home" suggest about how he felt about the quality of this song?
  • What is the "conversion narrative" regarding what Foster set out to do in his minstrel songs after he wrote this letter?
  • Why do you think Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American abolitionist, wrote (somewhat astonishingly) "we have allies in the Ethiopian songs . . . they awaken the sympathies for the slave."

V.   A Musical Hybrid?

Finally, listen to "Old Black Joe," one of the songs that is often singled out as an example of Foster's rejection of the the "trashy and really offensive words" of the minstrel tradition. The video quality is unfortunately poor.
View Lyrics To "Old Black Joe"

  • What are the main themes of the song's lyrics?
  • Does the music seem to have more in common with the parlor song, "Hard Times," or the minstrel song, "Camptown Races"?
  • Do you think that "Old Black Joe" is in any measure successful at advancing the agenda seemingly outlined in the letter to Christy, above? Why or why not?