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Book Review: Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of America’s First Great Popular Songs, Edited by Ken Emerson

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“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
   While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
‘Tis the song the sigh of the weary;
Hard Times, Hard Times, come again no more;
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.”

Lyrics relevant to today’s economic and social status quo that could have been written by Pete Seger, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Joan Baez. But they were not.  Stephen C. Foster wrote these classic lines in 1854 and Bruce Springsteen used them in his 2009 tour in encores.  Ken Emerson has put together an anthology including the lyrics to 32 of Foster’s nearly 200 songs and complemented them with the lyrics to another 49 songs written by other composers that either influenced Foster or were influenced by him in Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of America’s First Great Popular Songs.

The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher, is producing a series entitled, “The American Poets Project” offering a library of American poetry.  Stephen Foster & Co. is the thirtieth volume in the series that began with Edna St. Vincent Millay and includes such notables as Whitman, Poe, Sandburg, and Cole Porter.  LOA also publishes non-poetry collections of authors such as Philip K. Dick, Philip Roth, and Mark Twain.

In the introduction to the book, Emerson gives a brief biography of Foster and reviews the setting of his writings and inspirations.  Emerson concedes that some of Foster’s lyrics were racist, but at their best, imbued “African Americans with a dignity and pathos that were unprecedented. No songwriter had called a black woman a lady before.”  Foster did in the song, “Nelly Was a Lady”. Interesting stories abound as we learn that the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home” include an indictment of slavery for breaking up black families.

Songs are divided into six chapters with titles such as: “Plantation Melodies,” “Parlor Ballads,” and “Songs of Protest and Poverty.”  Each chapter has its own introduction and begins with the relevant Foster songs.  Works of other writers follow Foster’s, examples of which are: D.D.Emmett’s “Yellow Rose of Texas,” Fosdick’s “Aura Lee,” and Winner’s “Little Brown Jug.”  The impact of these songwriters on future artists is unmeasurable.  Remember that Elvis remade “Aura Lee” as “Love Me Tender”.

My wife and I had fun quizzing each other with the lyrics to familiar songs.  Do you know which song has these lines?  
“Den fly along like a rail-road car
Runnin’ a race with a shooting star.”

How about,

“Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.”

Pleasant surprises await the reader in the stories behind the songs, the history of the times, and the unknown lyrics.  It all ads up to great poetry.  Would I buy Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of America’s First Great Popular Songs? Yes. Faster than you can answer, “Camptown Races” or “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”.

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