This article originally appeared in the Mt. Vernon Register-News
By Rorye O’Connor
MT. VERNON — — “When a song becomes universally known, and you can call it a folk song, that’s a big thing in my mind,” said Chris Vallillo, Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar on Saturday.
His point was, many of 19th century musician Stephen Foster’s songs have become cultural touchstones for Americans, from “Oh! Susanna,” to “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Vallillo shared the details of Foster’s life and his music on Saturday at the Jefferson County Historical Village, during “Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Music.” More than 50 people attended the event.
Vallillo said when Foster was born — July 4, 1826 — was integral to his success.
“It was a time of great change and excitement in the United States,” he said. “There were railroads, riverboats and mass-produced instruments. Foster’s music took off at a time when there were people moving around like never before.”
He said Foster’s first big hit, “Oh! Susanna,” was perhaps the first popular song heard around the world. He said in 1849, it became the song of the Gold Rush, and men seeking the elusive flakes wrote their own verses of the song to suit their circumstances.
Many of Foster’s most popular songs mimicked the sound of black musicians and blackface minstrel shows, Vallillo said. He said these songs, called plantation songs and written in dialect, had strong overtones of pastoralism and drew parallels between the slaves in the South and the factory workers in the North.
He said in the 1830s, plantation songs allowed downtrodden Ohio River Valley factory workers to feel superior to slaves, while simultaneously identifying with their struggles.
“The Old Folks at Home,” one of Foster’s songs written in this style, was his biggest hit, Vallillo said.
“In 1854, he sold 130,000 copies of the song,” he said. “Back then, when you sold 3,000 copies, that meant a song was a big hit.”
At least a half dozen other songs about the Suwannee River in Florida were inspired by “The Old Folks at Home,” despite the fact that Foster had never traveled farther south than northern Kentucky, he said.
“He wanted a romantic sounding name, so he pulled out an atlas,” he said.
Though Foster was extremely underpaid by the company that owned the rights to his music, he was still shrewd enough to avoid alienating his audience, Vallillo said.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is widely believed to be based on Federal Hill, Ky., he explained, but Foster’s diaries reveal it is actually based on the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Foster rewrote the song to make it less polarizing, taking out all references to Uncle Tom, he said.
“He didn’t want to alienate half his audience by denouncing slavery,” he said. “He created a song of longing for a simpler time.”
Vallillo shared one of Foster’s most complex tunes, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” as well as some of his less-inspired work around the time of the Civil War.
He said Foster was a troubled man, an alcoholic whose unhelpful friends and chronic lack of funds did nothing to help his situation.
“His last years were a sad affair,” Vallillo said. “His lifelong weakness for alcohol takes its toll.”
Foster died Jan. 13, 1864, with 30 cents and a note that stated “Dear friends and gentle hearts” in his pocket, he said.
His song “Beautiful Dreamer” was touted as his last song, Vallillo said, and whether it was or not, he said it is a “fine example of his best work.”
“Foster led a life full of contradictions,” he said. “He was the greatest songwriter of the 19th century, and created popular music as we know it.”