Ryan Findley

Alverno Presents re-illuminates Stephen Foster

Jon Langford, Juniper Tar, Field Report's Christopher Porterfield, Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa and more will perform Foster's works at "Beautiful Dreamer."

By - Jan 29th, 2013 01:23 pm

Ryan Schleicher curates a concert paying tribute to popular music innovator Stephen Foster at Alverno Presents Saturday. Photo credit Kat Schleicher.

If you know anything about American folk music, anything at all, you know who Stephen Foster is. You just don’t know it.

Foster wrote many of Americana’s classic hits, including “Oh, Susannah,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Camptown Races.” Impressive enough, but more so considering he was arguably the first man attempting to be a professional songwriter, at least in the modern sense of the term. Since his death, he has been hailed as the father of American pop music, and his works have been recorded by a multitude of artists, singly and in impressive configurations.

The latest configuration hits Milwaukee Saturday, Feb. 2, at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre. Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project, draws in a collaborative team of musicians and entertainers from diverse backgrounds and musical traditions to perform and interpret Foster’s oeuvre, and give it a modern airing.

Beautiful Dreamer is being curated by WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher and backed by his band Juniper Tar, but the other performers’ musical tastes don’t march in lockstep to his or each others’. Jon Langford is a Welsh-born, Chicago-based musician (and visual artist who specializes in portraits of country legends) who helped develop the alt-country genre and commonly blends roots rock and punk sounds in his works. Cincinatti-based emcee Blueprint produces hip hop with rock and electronic leanings, often with his original work instead of sampling. Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield and Testa Rosa’s Betty Strigens both hail from Milwaukee, but her dreamy, atmospheric pop sounds nothing like his sparse, guitar-strummy folk. (Bethany Thomas, Robbie Fulks and a 20-voice community choir round out the roster.)

That makes sense. The vast majority of Foster’s songs mix genres themselves, although those genres are quite different than our 21st century selection.

While Foster had some exposure to what was considered “classic” in the mid-nineteenth century, he also had a fondness for the music of minstrel shows, usually performed by white entertainers in blackface. Foster wanted to bring the music of this entertainment of the masses up to the level of high culture by using the musical elements of minstrelsy and leaving the bawdy, rough lyrics out. Some of his most popular works can be said to feature this synthesis.

It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that Foster’s blending of musical styles is still the bedrock of American music today. The melting pot of the American experiment doesn’t end with people; it permeates all parts of culture. We are all at our best when we’re drawing on inspiration from everywhere and anywhere, when we are synthesizing diverse and sometimes seemingly incompatible influences into a harmonious whole. Stephen Foster tried to do it; Schleicher and this group of artists will take it a step further.

Beautiful Dreamer: The Stephen Foster Project is part of the 2012/2013 Alverno Presents season and will be performed at the Pitman Theater on Saturday, February 2. Tickets are available online.

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