Carroll Dale Short

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Stephen Foster's Vision Still A Soothing Oasis

By Dale Short

WHITE SPRINGS, Fla. – A quiet, shallow river runs through the edge of town here. Its banks are sandy. Old oaks hold a dense shade, even at noon.

But there are no fishermen in sight only a half-dozen black youths, all about ten years old, shirtless, walking barefooted and using branches torn from a sapling to poke in the yellowish-white sand, looking for nothing in particular.

Drive across the old bridge, and you notice the sign:

SUWANEE RIVER.

Before you can say to yourself, “that’s odd; the same name as the song . . .” the words and tune have already formed in your mind and you’re singing them despite yourself:

Way down upon the Swan-e-e-e River,
Far, far awa-a-a-ay . . .

It’s no coincidence, though the real Suwanee has gained a u over the century. Pass over the quiet river and, a few blocks nearer downtown White Springs, a small distinguished sign points the way to the Stephen Stephen Foster MuseumFoster Memorial Museum.

By now, I’m not surprised to run into Stephen Foster anywhere – even here, on a long, slow drive to the seacoast of Georgia. He’s been dogging my steps for the last two months. If I had a little stronger belief in psychic phenomena, I would be most thoroughly spooked by this time. His name and his melodies keep meeting me at the oddest hours, around the most unlikely corners.

It began on the first hot night of this past spring, a midnight tribute to the composer on public radio. A woman with a beautiful, mellow voice sang his best tunes, with a single piano for accompaniment, and two scholarly sounding men talked about Foster’s life and music.

In the summer of 1980, when the number-one pop song in the nation consists of a female singer whining “talk about it, talk about it, talk about i-i-i-i-t . . .” endlessly, with a melody line as tuneless as a jackhammer, the hundred-year-old music of Stephen Foster is as soothing an oasis as the Suwanee River itself.

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne like a vapor on the summer air . . .

Sitting on the wide green lawn of the Foster Memorial, a grouping of light-colored antebellum buildings overhung by huge oaks, it’s easy to imagine Foster scribbling on a notepad, humming to himself, with a full moon shining and the odor of magnolias wafting in the air.

It’s easy to imagine, but it’s far from the truth.

The man who romanticized and immortalized an entire era of the South only visited it a handful of times in his thirty-eight years of life. He lived and wrote mostly in the cold, gritty industrial cities of the North.

Even as a teenager, he wanted to be a serious composer. His family preferred a more stable career for him, though, and helped him get a job as a clerk for a Cincinnati steamship line, where his ledgers were said to be “models of neatness and accuracy.” In his free time he began writing songs for the Negro minstrel show, whose popularity was on the upswing in the mid-1800s.

He did it mainly for the resultant paycheck. He asked the publishers of the sheet music to leave his name off, so that such “frivolous” writing wouldn’t keep people from taking him seriously as a real songwriter when he eventually made his mark in music. In the meantime, though, he joked with his friends that he intended to become “the greatest writer of minstrel music in the world.”

Weep no more, my lady, weep no more today
We will sing one song for the Old Kentucky Home,
For the Old Kentucky Home far away.

It’s ironic that the man who wrote two of the most beautiful melodies in all of music, “I Dream of Jeanie” and “Beautiful Dreamer” saw his own dreams mostly crumble. He made lots of money, spent even more, suffered through ill health, alcoholism, and a disastrously mismatched marriage. He died penniless in New York City, from injuries received in a fall, at the age of thirty-eight.

It’s probable that even his own imagination couldn’t encompass his music’s impact on the world. No matter that some of his concert hall numbers’ gentility has fallen into disfavor among contemporary souls, or that his mistily romanticized references to happy slaves aren’t exactly the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Travels to Arabia, Africa, Japan, and other far shores have told of awakening to Stephen Foster songs sung in English by workers and housemaids.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee . . .

No doubt if he could tour his own memorial museum today, he’d be surprised his “un-serious” music has survived so richly. He probably wouldn’t spend much time in the stuffiness of these walls, though, but would walk down to the Suwanee and wait for sunset.

A uniformed guard has come to lock the museum doors for the evening. There’s still an hour of daylight left, for a visitor to sit on the lawn and imagine.

Imagine, and wonder what hall or alleyway the next Stephen Foster song will meet me in. I’ve come to carry his songs in my mind, these weeks, the way my kid self carried a smooth, cool piece of flintrock in a pocket, a soothing thought just to know it’s there for the touching.

I don’t know it yet, here on the lawn, but four days from now in the heart of bustling Atlanta a record store’s discount rack will be displaying a battered album, “Stephen Foster Songs,” priced at far less than it’s worth.

I’ll buy it, immediately, since it’s waiting there expressly for me, and the drive home will be more soothing just for having the album lying in the back seat, smooth and cool, there for the touching.

I’ll be glad to see it on the record store rack, out of place amid the high walls crammed with disco and metallic rock.

Glad. But not at all surprised.

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