Day 127 of Colourisation Project – September 11
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
One of the first songs I ever learned to play on the piano was the simple minstrel song, Oh! Susanna, by Stephen Foster, the ‘father of American music.’
It was first performed 167 years ago on this day September 11, 1847 by a local quintet at a concert in Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The song is among the most popular American songs ever written. It even became an anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848 but the person behind the name Susanna remains a mystery to this day although it has been suggested that it may refer to Foster’s deceased sister, Charlotte, whose middle name was Susanna.
Oh! Susanna was first published by W. C. Peters & Co. in Cincinnati in 1848. Weak copyright laws at the time enabled minstrel troupes to copyright and publish the song under their own names at least 21 times between 1848 and 1851. Foster earned just $100 ($2,653 in 2012 dollars) for the song and its rapid popularity led the publishers, Firth, Pond & Company to offer him a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold, convincing him to become America’s first fully professional songwriter.
Foster struggled to support his family. Not having any business acumen, Foster was forced through financial difficulties to sell all rights to his future songs to his publishers for about $1,900 with the profits from his songs going largely to performers and publishers. That was 150 years ago, long before sound recordings or performance rights. Today, Foster would be worth millions of dollars a year.
Tragically, Foster met with a grim ending. Burnt out by the age of 37, his wife had left him and he had become an alcoholic. In poor health and suffering from a fever, Foster fell and hit his head on a washbasin in 1864. He died three days later with 38 cents in his pocket and a penciled scrap of paper that read, ‘dear friends and gentle hearts.’
Today his music is considered a central part of America’s cultural heritage and continues to entertain not just America but the world over. Foster wrote over 200 songs; among his best-known are Camptown Races, Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Old Black Joe, and Beautiful Dreamer.
So ingrained into the American pop culture is Stephen Foster’s music that in a Fractured Fairy Tales segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Aladdin finds a lamp with a female genie with light brown hair, who immediately asks, “Are you Stephen Foster?” His music is everywhere, in films, TV and even commercials. In November 2012, Beautiful Dreamer featuring Rachel Fannan on vocals was used in a commercial by Canon, which went on to win the award for Outstanding Commercial at the 2012–2013 Creative Arts Primetime Emmys. Beautiful vocals to match a beautiful melody. Check it out.
Foster who was born in 1826 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.
Of all his works my personal favourite, popularized throughout history by the likes of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison is Beautiful Dreamer, published shortly after Foster’s death. Even Cheyenne (Clint Walker) does an engaging version in an episode of the classic TV western, Cheyenne, which you can see and listen to here.
And finally, I leave you today with what I think is an ethereally beautiful rendition of Beautiful Dreamer by Sheryl Crowe. Enjoy!
Wake unto me
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
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Foster