Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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VARIOUS ARTISTS
Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
Emergent

Stephen Foster invented modern songwriting. His style a prophetic American amalgam of European models (Irish, Italian and, inescapably at the time, English) with African-American usages that could have been direct steals or imitations of fakes, he was also an innovator professionally: the first songwriter to sign a royalty deal, the first to go broke when his well ran dry. Raised in Pittsburgh, he died a Bowery alcoholic in 1864. He was 37.

Although Foster's 200-song output was long on parlor ballads like "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," he is best remembered for a few lively blackface minstrel hits: "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight," the world-conquering "Oh! Susanna." But if young people can still hum these tunes, it's not because Foster keeps getting recorded. Unless you're into James Taylor, Taj Mahal's ebullient takeover of "Oh! Susanna" and Kate McGarrigle's primly soulful reclamation of the atypical "Hard Times Come Again No More" are just about the only notable Foster covers of the rock era. So this collection is welcome on historical grounds alone. Dominated by Nashville folkies, from Raul Malo and Suzy Bogguss representing commerce on one end to Judith Edelman and Beth Nielsen Chapman strumming poetically on the other, it's rather more genteel than minstrel music seemed back then and rather more informal than parlor music strove to be. But this compromise captures what we understand of Foster's spirit better than the art-song approach to which he's commonly subjected today.

The minstrel classics fare worse than the ballads. Except for BR5-49's forthright drumming on the obscure cockfighting song "Don't Bet Your Money on de Shanghai," the music, from David Ball's calm "Old Folks" to Michelle Shocked's insouciant "Susanna," is insufficiently rousing. But in Malo's romantic take on the gorgeous title tune and the pristine readings of less familiar numbers by Edelman, Chapman and Alison Krauss, Foster's gifts as a melodist assert themselves. The politeness the singers project feels both contemporary and historically accurate, even though, strictly speaking, it's neither. As a result, when Mavis Staples, John Prine and Alvin Youngblood Hart rough up some better-known titles, what they're doing seems appropriate, too. Foster couldn't have known that all that sandpaper and melisma was what he was aiming at. But it was.

Tracks, Oct.-Nov. 2004