Southern history is never simple. Though time may have the inclination to blanch and boil down the past into easily digestible packages that tuck nicely under textbook headings, Southern history—like much of the South—tends to buck the yoke of oversimplification. It’s too nuanced, too layered, too much a Gordian knot of patriotism and prejudice, of politeness and pride. It’s a happy tune, if you will, whistled against a cloudy sky.
Take, for instance, the middle of the nineteenth century, a time when the nation was so alive with its own ambition that it played as much a character in its story as the characters themselves. Stretched and puckered at the seams of Manifest Destiny and torn asunder over the issue of slavery, it was a country stuck in the constant evolution of Milton’s Mother Sin: messily rebirthed only to consume itself once again. Set against this backdrop Stephen Foster, now the lauded Father of American Music—the artist behind toe-tapping children’s classics like “Oh, Susannah” and “Camptown Races”—but then, a complex compendium of contradictions that matched the fever of the times: an artist in the age of Industrialism, a standard of Southern music without having ever actually lived in the South, and a man whose livelihood rested heavily upon the mockery of blacks in minstrel shows, yet who would pen the unofficial anthem of abolition.
To be fair, Stephen Foster was raised many years and miles from the tumult of our nation’s adolescence, born to a musical family in Pennsylvania in 1826. Much to the disappointment of his parents’ middle-class sentiments, Foster took much less interest in the formality of parlor music than in the slap-stick style of blackface minstrel shows. For a boy to whom slavery had little more footing in day-to-day life than the castles across the Atlantic, the burnt-cork faces, wooly wigs, and exaggerated vernacular of blackface actors held a wild appeal. Age did little to abate his fascination with the genre; when Foster grew old enough to write his own compositions, they were boisterous, irreverent reflections of the minstrel show.
Though Foster was a natural musician, loose copyright laws made it virtually impossible to consider it a viable livelihood. To make ends meet, he moved to Cincinnati to work as a clerk in his brother’s shipping company, and for the first time, was exposed to the flesh and bone versions of his blackface pantomimes: the broad-shouldered roustabouts that lowed deeply on the docks, the red-hot coals of slavery that spit and hissed across the Ohio River, and the low rumble of the Underground Railroad that slipped beneath.
The impact of Foster’s new surroundings was undeniable; though he continued to create music in his favored style, the acidic mockery and the derisive tone that were the hallmarks of the minstrel show gradually disappeared, replaced with an element of humanity and grace that had never before been seen in the genre. To page through Foster’s compositions after his move to Cincinnati is to watch a man grapple with the complexity of his time. His first national hit, “Oh, Susannah!,” immortalizes two black lovers that have been separated, “Nelly Bly” mourns the passing of a black “lady” (a term never before used to describe a black woman in song), yet his next composition, “Old Folks at Home,” indulges the myth of the idyllic plantation to the point of absurdity.
Perhaps the greatest example of Foster’s vacillating perspectives, however, comes in the form of one of his most famous tunes, “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight.” A sympathetic rejoinder to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight” (originally entitled, “Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight”) was a composition of seemingly irreconcilable sentiments, as much a cry for change as it is a nostalgia for things to stay the same. The lament of a slave who is sold downriver and forced to leave an idyllic Kentucky plantation, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night” simultaneously perpetuated the plantation fantasy and—as Frederick Douglass himself claimed—awakened “sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.” Whether intentional or not, Foster—master of the minstrel tune—had composed a battle cry, an anthem of abolition.
Today much of Foster’s music has been polished to appeal to the modern listener—the offensive terminology expunged, the dark imagery brushed over. “My Old Kentucky Home” has been named the Kentucky state song, the plantation that Foster once visited, Federal Hill, immortalized for its ode-inspiring beauty, and swinging, musical plays composed to honor the Father of American Music—all worthy honors, to be sure—and yet to oversimplify Foster’s role in the musical fabric of the country is to do it a disservice. Stephen Foster’s contribution is so much more than an ear-worm, a toe-tapping jingle, or even a nostalgic celebration of Kentucky’s beauty; it’s an immortal dedication to the complex and nuanced passions of the South.
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