Was Stephen Foster the First Real American Pop Star?

Feb 1, 2013

Stephen Foster is perhaps one of the most beloved American composers of all time. Though they were written in the 19th century, Foster's impressive catalog of tunes including “Camptown Races” and “O! Susanna," are still popular today.

Stephen Foster, 19th century American composer
Credit Library of Congress

That's why a whole group of Milwaukee musicians will explore and respond to Foster's material and give it a modern treatment during a special one-night concert called "Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project" on Saturday at Alverno College.

The event is the brainchild of Ryan Schleicher, who is the bassist and vocalist for the Milwaukee band, Juniper Tar. Schleicher says the event is not meant to be a jam session of 19th-century American folk songs. He reached out to musicians who he felt would be thoughtful and serious about bringing Foster's work into the 21st century. And he hopes that will carry over to the audience.

"I want them to walk away and never remember Foster for 'O! Susanna' as they learned it in grade school, because that’s where most people get introduced to Foster and why most people think he’s not as relevant," Schleicher says.

Foster's music isn't such a far departure for Schleicher or his musical partner Christopher Porterfield, the singer-songwriter behind the band Field Report. Both Schleicher and Porterfield consider themselves “folk rockers,” musicians who sing folk music with rock band instrumentation.

Porterfield says he was first introduced to Foster's influence through other musicians, like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash. For the concert, he's taken an an academic and creative approach to Foster, pouring over hundreds of lyrics and doing biographical research. The result is a song by Porterfield that he hopes captures Foster's style.

Along the way, Porterfield learned that there's much more to Foster’s story and songs than the “doo-dah” hook. Though many of his best known works are given a southern setting, the Pittsburgh-born Foster only traveled to the South once. But while only 23 of his songs have “southern” themes, that set of songs provided 90% of his income while his contracts were in force, according to Grove Music Online. Foster was the first person in the United States to earn his living solely by selling his compositions to the public.

Foster composed from his own experience of “parlor poetic imagery” and the northern perspective. His songs, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” focus on themes of yearning for home and for family, of days long ago. With these lyrics, the songs were able to cross ethnic and economic classes, selling the idea, music, and imagery to all people in the nation.

Porterfield says Foster really “thought that he could do good with his music. He wanted his voice to guide others." Foster believed in the equality of all and objected to their use in minstrel shows. Porterfield says he tried to give his narrators a sense of dignity, even in some of his songs that had racially charged elements. Schleicher and Porterfield say while they believe most of these songs were not written with a prejudiced intention, they hope to discuss the racial aspect of Foster's work at the concert.

Both Schleicher and Porterfield call Foster the proto-American songwriter. He set the standard and he helped create a national identity through folk music. The pair also wants people to realize that Foster wrote music other than the hokey tunes taught in elementary school. Foster’s music invites the listener to grasp the depth of family, racial issues, and heartbreak.

“These songs don’t go away in our mind or in our culture,” Schleicher says.

The two songs performed in this interview are “In the Family” originally by the Wilderness of Manitoba and “I Would Not Die in Springtime” by Stephen Foster.