Music Review: Stephen Foster
In the wake of Hurricane Hermine and her uproar that hit most of the Florida Gulf Coast last weekend, we are trying to recoup and rebuild. Many were hard hit by devastating storm surges, wind, water, and rain, even inland areas such as White Springs, Florida. Thousands upon thousands were without power for days, but slowly, some normalcy has been restored. Today, September 11, 2016, also marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most violent terrorist attacks on American soil to date. Many still mourn the tragic loss of family, dear friends, and strangers, we don't even know, who were murdered that day in history. We have recovered, yet WE WILL NEVER FORGET. So I decided I would report on, Stephen Foster, “America's Troubadour”, the very first American music troubadour who pioneered and laid the foundation for the “form or art-form” of what we call the American popular song, even still, today, and on the one of the grandest instruments ever built in America, The Carillon Tower.
Beautiful White Springs, Florida, nestled on the muddy banks of the Suwannee River, hosts the Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park: The park opened in 1950 to celebrate and honor one of America's best and influential musical composers of all time, Stephen Foster: With a Museum exhibiting ten lifelike dioramas that accurately illustrates the words to ten of his songs, “the cream of the crop”, that he wrote and is most well known for.
The Carillon Tower which opened in 1958 and houses the 97-bell carillon is one of the largest musical instruments ever produced in America and the Western Hemisphere. It has the largest tubular bells and number of carillon bells installed within it's massive tower. These musical and majestically constructed tubular 97 carillon bells provide for a more efficient design for the production of musical tone than the cast bell of the old world tone. Stephen Foster's magnificent music and pioneered melodies ring through three full sets of 32 bells with a scale range of C to G, chromatic, plus a fourth high G bell. These bells were constructed with five-point harmony tuning with no trace of dissonance. Three bells sound in perfect unison for each note to produce a strong, resonant response. The largest, low C bells weigh in at only 426 pounds each and are 12.5 feet long, 5 inches in diameter, and has heavy ¾ inch walls; the smallest high G bells weigh in at 69 pounds each. The Carillon Tower houses all 27 tons of the 97 carillon bells that rings it's melodious bellls every quarter hour on the hour while set in the life-like setting of the song that made him most famous: (Down Upon the) Swanee River. Two of Fosters songs were later adopted as State Songs: Old Folks Home -Florida, and My Old Kentucky Home was adopted by Kentucky.
Stephen Collins Foster, was born in a little white cottage overlooking the Allegheny River of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1826. He was very literate, and well educated at private academies in Pittsburgh. Although Foster never completed a college education, he was very musically literate as well. One of his influences and some form of musical training could be attributed to his German immigrant friend, Henry Kieber; an accomplished composer and teacher, and music merchant, who made a huge impact and impression on the young Stephen. He self-taught himself to play the piano and self educated musically; he learned to play by ear and listened
Foster was a musical pioneer; a true innovator, and the 1st American Musical Troubadour. More than 150 years ago Stephen Foster laid the “form” for every song we hear played these days; be it Rock, Pop, Country, Blues, Folk, or Americana. He pioneered and got down to the roots of the verse/chorus (ABAB) and verse/bridge (AABA) song forms: the who, what, when, where, why, and the all the ups and downs between, and how it is presented in song form. He got to the root of his music producing realistic lyrics that tap into fundamental issues and every day life: He created an art form all songwriters still use today. Foster composed over 200 songs in his short 37 years and before his untimely death in 1864. His touching melodies and simple harmonies about the life and music on the plantation are displayed and exhibited in the dioramas in White Springs, Florida.
Most memorable of Stephen Foster's illustrated songs and dioramas exhibited at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center are: the time honored, OH! Susanna, (Way Down Upon the) Swanne River, Old Dog Troy, Camptown Races, Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home, Open Thy Lattice, Love, Old Black Joe, Old Folks At Home, and De Glendy Burk. Many modern movie song notables include Beautiful Dreamer in a BATMAN movie, and Katie Bell, Louisianna Belle, My Old Kentucky Home, and Massa's in De Cold Cold Ground were in the soundtrack of GONE WITH THE WIND.
Foster's songs, of which he wrote all his own lyrics, were mostly written and composed the last 10 years of his life, between 185-1860, and are among the most popular songs ever written by an American. In the days before ASCAP, BMI, The Library of Congress and copyrighting, etc, there was no such thing as the “Music Business” as we know it now. Sound recording wasn't invented until 13 years after Stephen Foster's death. It was only 66 years later that radio even existed! There were no “performing rights” or “royalty fees” back then. There was no way to of earning money for his songs like we know it today. Only through a 5-10% royalty was offered for the outright purchase of his songs by a publisher. In today's music industry Foster would be worth million$ of dollar$ every year! At his untimely death, and suffering from a persistent fever, he died in poverty at the charity ward in Bellevue Hospital at the age of 37 with only 37 cents in his pocket.
Foster's ancestral home has been restored and preserved by the city of Pittsburgh, and the University of Pittsburgh houses an extensive collection of First Editions of many of Stephen Foster's songs and material relating to his life. Never a Southerner, and having only once ever traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line to New Orleans. Foster composed Way Down Upon the) Swanee River, now Florida's State Song. One New York editor once eloquently describes the Suwannee River as more than a stream that flows from Georgia, through Florida, and down to empty in the Gulf of Mexico. He wrote, “The Real Suwannee River rises in the highest mountains of the human soul and is fed by the deepest springs in the human heart. It flows through the pleasant, sunny lands of memory; it empties into the glorious ocean of unfilled dreams.....”.
So there you have it, Stephen Foster: musical pioneer and appropriately titled, “American Troubadour”; and the largest man made musical instrument in this great land we call America.
Next week I'll be reporting from the mud boggs on the epic event we Georgia peeps call Lactember Fest, formally known as Lactober Fest! Y'all have a great week! Over and out..... Penney.
Cc: Penney Holley, Country Music News International, September 12, 2016