The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster offers an engaging reassessment of the life, politics, and legacy of the misunderstood father of American music.
Once revered the world over, Foster's plantation songs, like "Old Folks at Home" and "My Old Kentucky Home," fell from grace in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement due to their controversial lyrics.
Foster embraced the minstrel tradition for a brief time, refining it and infusing his songs with sympathy for slaves, before abandoning the genre for respectable parlor music.
The youngest child in a large family, he grew up in the shadows of a successful older brother and his president brother-in-law, James Buchanan, and walked a fine line between the family's conservative politics and his own pro-Lincoln sentiments.
Foster lived most of his life just outside of industrial, smoke-filled Pittsburgh and wrote songs set in a pastoral South-unsullied by the grime of industry but tarnished by the injustice of slavery. Rather than defining Foster by his now-controversial minstrel songs, JoAnne O'Connell reveals a prolific composer who concealed his true feelings in his lyrics and wrote in diverse styles to satisfy the changing tastes of his generation.
In a trenchant reevaluation of his NewYork Bowery years, O'Connell illustrates how Foster purposely abandoned the style for which he was famous to write lighthearted songs for newly popular variety stages and music halls.
In the last years of his life, Foster's new direction in songwriting stood in the vanguard of vaudeville and musical comedy to pave the way for the future of American popular music.
His stylistic flexibility in the face of evolving audience preferences not only proves his versatility as a composer but also reveals important changes in the American music and publishing industries. An intimate biography of a complex, controversial, and now neglected composer, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster is an important story about the father of American music.
This invaluable portrait of the political, economic, social, racial, and gender issues of antebellum and Civil War America will appeal to history and music lovers of all generations.