Honoring Stephen Foster

The first great American pop songwriter gets a long overdue tribute

Of all the excellent recordings released in 2004--and believe me, amid all the crap, there were lots of treats--one of the most charming was Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, on which contemporary folk, blues, country, jazz and rock artists cover the songs of the man called the first great American pop songwriter by many.

Quite simply, it's one of the best tribute albums of the year, and an overdue homage to Foster's brilliance.

What? Wasn't he the guy who wrote such hoary chestnuts as "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)"--the stuff of sing-alongs at nursing homes?

Yes, but when artists as compelling as Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Alison Krauss, BR5-49, Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Prine, Michelle Shocked, Suzy Bogguss and Henry Kaiser are playing these songs, they find fresh new vitality in works 150 years old.

Born in Pittsburgh on the Fourth of July 1826, Foster wrote more than 200 compositions that have become woven into the tapestry of our country's history and culture. Want to talk about "Americana" as a musical genre? Foster created it. And he did so well before the development of radio, TV, recorded music or widespread concert touring.

He was the first American songwriter to make a living by writing music and lyrics, said Tamara Saviano, the executive producer of Beautiful Dreamer. She spoke by phone from her Nashville home last month.

For more than a year, Saviano worked closely with producers David Macias and Steve Fishell to make the recording, matching songs with artists. At first, they were surprised no one else had taken on such a project.

"We thought, 'Surely, this has been done before,' but it hadn't, at least with contemporary folk artists. It had only been done operatically or as instrumentals. Anyway, it fit our mission perfectly," Saviano said.

The mission? The CD is the first project of American Roots Publishing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of American culture through literature and art, with an emphasis on education, community connections and regional culture. Saviano is the group's executive director.

When choosing singers for the compilation, Saviano, Macias and Fishell compiled a list of names, including their "dream" artists--folks they didn't think they could get.

"Mavis Staples, we thought, was absolutely impossible. John Prine, we never thought we could get. Roger McGuinn? Right."

All signed on. Staples turned in an amazing rendition of "Hard Times Come Again No More," Prine lends his inimitable voice to "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight," and McGuinn shapes "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" into a chiming Byrdsian rocker. Other highlights include the Mavericks' Ralo Malo crooning the title track; pop-rocker Ron Sexsmith's moving interpretation of "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me"; and avant-garde guitarist Kaiser's gentle, gorgeous "Autumn Waltz."

Beautiful Dreamer also introduces to mass audiences heretofore little-known artists such as the Duhks, a young Canadian Celtic act that reinvents "Camptown Races," and Ollabelle, the New York City-based gospel folk group that does a radiant "Gentle Annie." Both of these groups' debut albums are out and well worth hearing.

"We wanted to have a couple of artists on the CD who represented, and were, voices that not everybody had heard and that we thought were interesting and deserving of more attention," Saviano said.

Musicologist Ken Emerson, in his sterling biography, Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, posits that the phenomenal, widespread popularity of Foster's songs marked the beginnings of a widely shared popular culture in our country.

Indeed, the reason so many of Foster's songs are so familiar to us hinges on the fact that some of them were embraced among certain populations. Said Saviano: "'Oh! Susanna' was the theme of the Gold Rush; 'Camptown Races' was the anthem for the Buffalo Soldiers; and 'My Old Kentucky Home' was used by the underground railroad."

Beautiful Dreamer was nominated last month for a Grammy Award; but American Roots Publishing isn't sitting idle basking in the glow of its award nod. In the works are a memoir by and a DVD concert tribute to the late Pops Staples, Saviano said. A Beautiful Dreamer concert also is being planned in Foster's hometown of Pittsburgh.

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