About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stephen Collins Foster, American Composer and Icon

"I come from Alabama with my _______ on my knee,
I'm goin' to Lou'siana, my _____ ______ for to see.
It rained all _______ the day I left, the weather it was _____,
The sun so hot I ______ to death, Susanna, don't you cry."

Can you fill in the blanks? I'll bet you can! And you've been able to for most of your life. Stephen Foster songs are part of our heritage, uniquely American and reliable as sing-a-longs at family gatherings, around campfires, or in the car on the family vacation.

Foster's melodies have also carried a number of songs, written by various groups. The Mormon pioneers loved to adapt his melodies: the "Mormon Doo-dah" song, also known as "Johnston's Army" - taken from "Camptown Races" - and "Brighter Days in Store" - taken from "Hard Times Come Again no More" - are perfect examples; others include "Zack, the Mormon Engineer" and "The Missionaries Handcart Song," both using the melody for "Oh! Susanna," above. The gold seekers in California also created a version of "Oh! Susanna," calling it "The 49ers' Oh Susanna" and sang of having "gone to California with my washpan (the pan used to wash dirt from the gold, not clothes) on my knee."

Stephen Foster's appeal was particularly evident during the last years of his life (he died in January 1864) when the Civil War was raging. People, inundated with songs of the war, were weary of it all by those last years and Stephen Foster songs told of gentler times and peaceful living (though he did pen a couple of war-based ballads, they never made it to "the charts" of the day). So, for many, Foster's songs provided an escape from the harsh realities of the War and families torn apart (literally and figuratively).

Today we continue to use Foster's songs to lighten our spirits and join in song. I'll bet most of your ancestors (if raised in the United States) sang those same songs. Think of that the next time you join in on "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," "Old Black Joe," "My Old Kentucky Home," or (my least favorite) "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair": you are probably singing something that your grandmother sang (or, perhaps, it was she who taught it to you!). Another way to connect to our forebears.

For more information on Stephen Foster, his songs and his life, check out Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, by Ken Emerson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, ISBN 0-684-81010-7) or one of the many websites such as The Music of Stephen Foster (where you can download MP3 files of his many, many songs) or The PBS program on his life (where you can learn about his influence on American Culture) or just Google "Stephen Foster" and see what pops up!

Stephen Collins Foster
b: 4 July 1826
d: 13 January 1864

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