Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Album Review--Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster

All too often, tribute albums fall flat with phoned-in performances. So I'm usually hesitant to buy tribute albums. However, I am glad I acquired, thanks to my wife, Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. This is one of the finer tribute albums I've heard in a long time. Perhaps it's better than most because Stephen Foster's been dead for 141 years. Perhaps it's because so many of his songs are part of American culture--Oh Susanna, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair, Hard Times, etc.

First a bit on Stephen Foster. Foster was arguably the first great American songwriter. He was born in July 4, 1826 in Pennsylvania, the same day Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. He lived and worked in Pennsylvania until 1860 when he moved to New York and proceeded to drink himself to death in 1864. He can be hard to deal with today because a lot of his songs were in the minstrel blackface tradition. But nonetheless his best songs are some of the most important art America has produced.

The album itself has mostly strong performances. The single most powerful is the first song, when Raul Malo sings Beautiful Dreamer. Malo can flat out sing in a way that very few can. It's almost like having Sinatra sing a Stephen Foster song. All too often those with wonderful singing talent can't actually sing--they sing a technically great song but there's very little emotion in the song. On the other song, think of the people who really don't have good voices but are great singers--Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, etc. But Malo can do both. It's a wonderful song and worth having the album just to hear this.

Equally as good is Mavis Staples rendition of Hard Times. Hard Times is probably Foster's most covered song by modern musicians, see Emmylou Harris' version on her Live at the Ryman for a quite good version. But it's a treat to hear Staples, part of the famous gospel singing Staples Family, come back and rip this out. She too has a wonderful voice and it's great to hear her again. John Prine's version of My Old Kentucky Home (less racist than some versions) is also good. Prine's from Kentucky and he sings as if this song really means a lot to him. Other excellent cuts are Alvin Youngblood Hart's version of Nelly Was A Lady, David Ball's Old Folks At Home, and Grey DeLisle's Willie We Have Missed You. A particularly interesting inclusion was Autumn Waltz, by the avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser (descendant of the industrialist Henry Kaiser). It's not as crazy as some of his work but it is certainly different than the other interpretations of Foster's songs. The only choice I wasn't sure about was BR5-49's Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai, which I think really didn't fit the rest of the album, though both the band and the song are fine.

Overall, this album is better than the last impression of Stephen Foster I had. This summer I was watching Turner Classic Movies and they played a short about Stephen Foster. (Sidenote--how great it is that TCM shows shorts. Who else shows these?) Anyway, it was probably filmed in the late 30s and showed Foster coming into this music shop in New York where he hoped to sell his song My Old Kentucky Home. He is played as a noble character and not the staggering drunk he was by the early 1860s. So he plays the song which includes a line about "all the darkeys being gay," and the woman in the record shop begins to imagine what the song evokes. Which of course is a plantation scene where all the whites come to watch the slaves sing and dance and eat watermelon. Even more bizarre was that there was a quartet of black singers, except that it was 3 blacks and one white in blackface. Which made absolutely no damn sense. Could they not find another black person in this nation? Overall, it was completely ridiculous. But it was a nice window onto the casual racism both in Hollywood and the US as a whole before World War II.