Keep them hard times really far away from my door?
September 23, 2017 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Is Stephen Foster out of the question today?

I am trying to learn to play guitar, which has made me confront what I kind of knew all along: "Camptown Races" and other Stephen Foster classics are from minstrel shows. Obviously I don't want to play any song from a minstrel show. What about, say, Randy Newman's remake of "Old Kentucky Home"? I've got a feeling it's out, too. Thank you for your thoughts.
posted by 8603 to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't want to play the songs, don't play the songs. You don't have to explain yourself.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:10 AM on September 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I mean, you gotta do you. Take for example Oh! Susana. Yes, it is a minstrel song, yes, the third verse originally contained the N word. But it is one of the most famous and successful American songs ever written. It sold 100k copies at a time when no other song had sold 5k and lots of people still love it. It was loved by the 49ers and the Pennsylvania Dutch. It appears in the Merry Melodies. This is American history. The words are largely nonsense, and it's easy to play the song in a manner where the song itself is not offensive (and most people have never even heard the original offensive third verse).

My point: reasonable people may disagree, play them or don't play them as you will, but I suspect that there is a low odds in you being consistently booed as a horrible racist for learning to play some Stephen Foster classics as a novice guitarist.

You may enjoy reading one of the articles around the concept "It's ok to like problematic things". Here is one of the top google hits, but you can find many more by googling that phrase.

You don't have to play it, you don't have to like it, but playing it doesn't immediately mean you're bad or wrong, imo, if you acknowledge the problems and don't try to e.g. defend minstrel shows as wholesome.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:17 AM on September 23, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: What I've found with equivocal things (like playing the music but not the words of a less-offensive Foster song in a private setting, where you're mostly tapping into the familiarity of the melody) is that I don't enjoy it. I feel bad, I am always conscious of anxiety around it, I am always conscious that some people would be upset to hear/see the thing, etc. If it's something where I have a long, innocent personal history with the thing and it's not too bad (like some of the books I read when I was young where I did not realize that they contained stereotypes because they were the stereotypes of, like, 1920) I might keep or re-read or listen to a thing as an adult, in private. But for me personally, the pleasure of a new equivocal thing where I have no personal history is always eaten away by my awareness of its unsavory side.

So basically, what I'm saying is that I think the tainted nature of this music is going to spoil whatever private, innocent enjoyment you might get from the melodies. It's not so much that you individually would be a horrible person because you played a widely known American melody that has racist roots, since many of us grew up hearing the melodies but not the words. With a lot of those songs, I grew up knowing an innoffensive first line "Oh Susanna, oh don't you cry for me, I something something something..." and the tune, and I had no cultural context at all for it. It's not that playing it or humming it or whatever makes you a terrible person, but it just...can't be unseen. It's like when you know that a movie star is a rapist, you can't ever look at their work the same way again because you always know.

So I'm kind of on the "don't bother with this stuff, it will bring you no real joy" side.

And I'm on the "it's not you, it's Foster" side. You're not a bad person, racism is a bad person, so to speak.
posted by Frowner at 9:31 AM on September 23, 2017 [10 favorites]

A huge percentage of US popular songs from the 19th century were written for and/or extensively performed in minstrel shows - it was the dominant US performance art form for decades. It's definitely not just Stephen Foster you'll want to keep away from if you want to stay away from minstrel songs.

I think there's room for thoughtful performances and enjoyment of a lot of these songs. People draw the line a lot of different places. If you're uncomfortable with the songs, though, don't play them. Even if you're comfortable with the songs you probably don't want your repertoire to consist *exclusively* of minstrel songs. That would be weird. Keep an eye on it.
posted by mskyle at 9:32 AM on September 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Regard old music and songs as you would a flounder. Admire its weirdness, but understand the evolution that made it so. Enjoy the tasty bits, but beware of the parts that will stick in your throat, know that not all of it will be palatable. Realize that the past, whether distant or no, can be as foreign a place to you as the bottom of the sea.

I spent several years immersing myself in recorded music from 1890-1930 . There is a lot there that is shocking and raw, but there are many recordings that were sublime and wondrous. I feel that while not all the songs I heard were songs I would want to play for modern audiences, there was much I learned that I would not have wanted to miss out on.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:33 AM on September 23, 2017 [15 favorites]

I don't know a lot of his repertoire, but for my money "Beautiful Dreamer" is the only safe one.
posted by rhizome at 10:22 AM on September 23, 2017

Backstory first: I used to work a lot with a theater company that did older American plays, from like the mid-1800's to the 1930s. And some of those shows were similarly problematic too.

If you want to make a blanket "no minstrel shows" policy like that, then that's fair; there are also plenty of folk songs that aren't from that tradition. Research the "Childe Ballads," or things that are descended from that; the "Childe Ballads" are a series of English folk songs that were collected in the early 1800s, and a lot of them are also related to "traditional folk songs" in the US. A lot of folk songs go back a LONG way, and something you may have remembered listening to your Kentucky grandma singing may have had its origins in Scotland or Wales, even though your Kentucky grandma was never there in her life.

But if you're more on the fence of "I'd rather not do minstrel shows, but 'Oh, Susanna' is so fun" or whatever, that's also perfectly valid. You could look into the context and history of the song a little, and just be aware of that when you play it and discuss that a little when performing it (like how we did with a play from 1860 that said some uneasy things about miscegenation but ultimately was sympathetic and sensitive, for its time), or you can leave out the verses you don't like (we would sometimes just cut or change a random word or line or two), or you could play up the uneasy elements to call attention to how fake they are (like how we did with a play about people pretending to be what they weren't; we had a guy in drag as the female lead and the one African-American actor as the noble-hero farmer, and a very blond and blue-eyed guy as the manservant). If you are torn because of a song's history, then you have options besides just not doing it at all.

If "not doing it at all" is absolutely the option you want to take, though, there are still a TON of songs available to you, fortunately.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on September 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also relevant: if you want to take a deep dive into folk music of all sorts with some nice research, good transcriptions and free downloads, you could do far worse than to spend some quality time in Roger McGuinn's Folk Den.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:46 AM on September 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This gets tricky because there can be a big difference between what the songs actually mean and what people who hear them today think they mean.
Looking at this NPR interview about Stephen Foster, you'll find that "My Old Kentucky Home," usually considered racist because of the language it uses, is not a celebration of the antebellum south, but is actually about the devastation slavery caused by breaking up enslaved families. The song is about being sold away from "the old Kentucky home" to parts unknown and separated from friends and family in order to pay the farm's debts. According to the Wikipedia entry on the song, it was inspired by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and Frederick Douglass classified it among songs that "awaken the sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish." However, that said, it's highly unlikely that a random listener today is going to be aware of the real meaning of the song. In a perfect world, you could let people know what the song is really about, but I'm not sure that would work in real life.

The NPR article also notes that Foster was the first American songwriter to refer to a black woman as a lady. He did this in the song "Nelly Was a Lady."

I'm not saying all Stephen Foster songs are great and that none should be considered racist, but characterizing them all as racist because of language use is like dismissing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is very anti-slavery, because of its use of the n word. I realize that some people think that is what should happen. I'm not one of them.
posted by FencingGal at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2017 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Just to be clear, I am absolutely not suggesting it's OK to sing all Stephen Foster songs. Definitely, the exaggerated dialect in some of the songs should be out. I'm just saying it's really a pretty complicated issue.
posted by FencingGal at 2:00 PM on September 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've always been partial to Hard Times, which doesn't have any problems with the lyrics.
posted by gteffertz at 8:12 PM on September 23, 2017

I'd suggest reading through all of Wikipedia's article about Stephen Foster. I like his music, but sensitivity to context is important. If you're not feeling it, then move on.
posted by ovvl at 6:28 PM on September 24, 2017

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