Her doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster.
— From the Silver Jews’ song “Tennessee” by David Berman
Like postage stamps and currency, you don’t get an honorary doorbell ring unless you’re dead. Or at least you shouldn’t, because who among even the best songwriters alive today has the chops to match the legacy of Stephen Foster? Baby Boomers are proud to exclaim that after the ”60’s, everything in popular music that could be done, had been done. Although this line of thinking is wrong in any decade, if you’re going to use it, try going back to the 1850’s instead, when Foster was penning “Camptown Races”, “Hard Times”, and “Swanee River”. The first release for American Roots Publishing, a not-for-profit arts organization, is an album of Foster’s songs recorded by the venerable likes of John Prine, Mavis Staples, and Roger McGuinn. While the individual merits of arrangements and performances are debatable for style and taste, the songs are undeniable, the efforts thoughtful and accomplished, and the presentation exceptional.
Beautiful Dreamer‘s booklet insert contains thorough details on every track, even reproducing the sheet music for the instrumental numbers. It also includes a brief foreword by Foster biographer Ken Emerson that provides historical background for the listener, as well as presents the collection for what it is: both an earnest tribute and a launching point for newcomers to learn even more about Foster and his role in American music. He writes, “Foster was the first great and distinctly American songwriter because he was the first to draw upon and stitch together the motley musics that settlers and slaves brought with them from Europe and Africa”.
So when the Duhks’ calypso rendition of “Camptown Races” unfolds, which most of us are familiar with from, um, camp, it’s surprising and fresh, but also makes complete sense. Henry Kaiser’s take on “Autumn Waltz” is revelatory, beginning with Middle-Eastern percussion before adding chiming mandolin and santour (relative to the dulcimer), and eventually blistering squalls of electric guitar. It’s a jaw dropper. Written over 150 years ago, performed here using instruments native to Iran and Iraq, and it sounds quintessentially American. Imagine that, or “Take that!” if you prefer.
Raul Malo of the Mavericks continues his streak of solid contributions to tribute albums with the opening title track, articulating the romantic lilt of the melody with Latin guitar flourishes and his signature warm croon. “Slumber My Darling” is performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and Alison Krauss, whose voice contrasts nicely immediately after Malo’s. Her voice sounds powder blue, a cool, perfect conduit for Foster’s lullaby. Other artists employ varying degrees of experimentation and reinvention with their songs, with more or less agreeable results. Mavis Staples’ take on “Hard Times Come Again No More” is effective in its simplicity, building slowly around her deep, expressive alto. “Oh! Susanna” however, suffers a bit in the hands of Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson. The arrangement is a bit over the top, drawing the focus away from the song itself.
Still, the worst an occasional off-moment can do on this record is make you want to sing the song. That’s really the point. In an age when people actually aspire, as their life’s dream, to be a flash-in-the-pan pop tart on national television, how do we preserve culture that is built to last, instead of built to be disposable? Part of the answer is obvious: Foster’s art was built to last. The songs themselves demand to be sung. They’re passed down from parents to children, in churches, at demonstrations, in schools, as well as on stage and on record. Another answer is provided by organizations such as American Roots Publishing, dedicated to the preservation of regional culture and artistic diversity. So far, they’re one for one.