Stephen Foster, rethought at Alverno Presents

Ryan Schleicher and friends (Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Christopher Porterfield and more) riff on the composer of "Oh Susanna."

By - Feb 4th, 2013 12:09 am
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Ryan Schleicher and many other of today’s musicians honored Stephen Foster at Alverno College Saturday. Photo courtesy of Alverno Presents.

“Oh Susanna.” “Beautiful Dreamer.” “Hard Times Come Around No More.” “Camptown Races.” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.”

In terms of sheer staying power, one of the greatest musical figures in American history is the man who wrote those songs and many more: Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864). There is probably not a person in the United States who doesn’t know at least one of his songs, a claim that cannot be made for most of his contemporaries and for few of the songwriters who came after him. Dan Emmett, a contemporary, is remembered for only one song– “Dixie”– and Emmett’s life is largely forgotten. Foster’s songs, as well as his life and tragic death at 37, are memorialized around the United States and celebrated in three motion pictures and a stage musical that has run in Bardstown, Ky., since 1958.

The drum set and rack of electric guitars on the Pitman Theatre stage Saturday suggested that this might not be your great-great-great grandfather’s evening of Stephen Foster songs. Past that, it would be hard to expect what would come next from a set dressed with two large ornate chairs, several crates, a variety of table lamps, a couple of candles, and a pair of small wood wagon wheels.

Eventually, Ryan Schleicher, the organizer of the night’s festivities, took the stage. Members of his band, Juniper Tar, and guest artists including Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Christopher Porterfield, Betty Strigens and many others joined him, to perform songs written and inspired by Stephen Foster. What followed was a generally entertaining but uneven celebration of this unique figure in American music.

It goes without saying that Foster’s songs were never performed in his lifetime as they were at Alverno Presents’ The Foster Project. It is a tribute to Foster’s skills as a composer and the timelessness of his music that it can blossom in ways that differ so from what he would have heard in his own day. The performers put each song into new and convincing light. Among the highlights: Robbie Fulks’ two appearances, singing “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” and “I Would Not Die in Summer Time,” and Christopher Porterfield’s singing “I Would Not Die in Spring Time.”

The performers did not shy away from the minstrel show connection in Foster’s songs. Robbie Fulks discussed at some length the question of race in Foster’s songs. We must remember that Foster was a creature of his time, and that he wrote many of his songs for minstrel shows. Schleicher pointed out that while Foster may have used words that were common in his time but are quite offensive today, his depictions of African-Americans were much more sympathetic than those of his peers.

Not all of the songs inspired by Foster equaled his in quality; many seemed rambling and oddly-structured by comparison. Furthermore, an extensive reading regarding the behavior of herds of wildebeests in Africa failed for a long time to reveal a connection to Stephen Foster, and when that connection finally became clear, it could have been made in a much simpler and shorter way.

But all in all, Schleicher and friends gave us an original and thought-provoking evening in honor of a great figure in American music.

0 thoughts on “Stephen Foster, rethought at Alverno Presents”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear David,

    That’s a good review of the concert. You said a lot of impt. things, and certainly in a succinct way (which I suppose was expected by TCD). Can you please remind me, though, of the connection to the behavior of herds of Wildebeests in AFrica. If I got the connection to Foster at the time, I have forgotten it by now and would be happy to be reminded of it.

    Thanks a lot, and cheers, Jane Bowers (jmbowers@uwm.edu)

  2. Anonymous says:

    It was trying to make a connection between swarm behavior of wildebeest herds, and how some wildebeests accidentally die in the process, with human behavior and Foster’s death.

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