Various Artists: Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
Label: American Roots Publishing
Sound/Style: Stylistically varied but respectful, inspired interpretations of 19th century American songs
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—The compositions of Stephen Foster are at the bedrock level of American popular music, though his songs are generally better known than his name. Foster, strictly a writer who did not perform publicly or record his compositions (thus solidifying his semi-obscurity) was the first person to pursue a songwriting career—literally inventing the profession. That fact alone makes him a notable innovator, but it pales alongside the musical and cultural ground that Foster broke in his 37 years of life.
With songs like "Swanee River" and "Camptown Races," Foster rose to prominence during the 1850s, but died destitute in 1864, well before copyright laws and royalty payments were established. Because his songs are literally woven into U.S. history and are often assumed to be anonymously penned folk tunes, few have been set down in definitive versions (only James Taylor’s free-spirited "Oh, Susanna" from 1970’s Sweet Baby James comes readily to mind). This makes Foster’s repertoire a treasure trove for a tribute CD, most examples of which fall short of the classic music they seek to recreate.
On the Grammy-nominated Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, project coordinator Tamara Saviano and a host of musical guests make the most of the opportunity to lovingly dust off standards and lesser-known gems once left for dead inside great-great-grandmother’s piano bench.
With numerous standout tracks and only a few minor fumbles, the disc is unusually cohesive for a multi-artist affair, attesting to both the power of Foster’s musical vision and the sensitivity of the artists involved. While the music ranges in style from lilting waltzes to back porch ditties, it almost always evokes deep feelings or paints vivid pictures of provincial America. The good-natured, if one-dimensional, depiction of 19th century black life in "Camptown Races" is Foster at his most lighthearted. The Duhks’ calypso-tinged take on this number transcends its racial caricatures and outdated lyrics ("Mom, what IS a bobtailed nag?"), resulting in one of the collection’s highlights.
More often, though, the album’s strengths are in its emotionally richer pieces. The universal longing for family, home and hearth, a typical Foster theme, is represented in David Ball’s loping country turn on "The Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)" and "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight," delivered here in John Prine’s ragged-but-right drawl.
Mavericks’ vocalist Raul Malo and Alison Krauss, respectively, offer flutter-inducing readings of "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Slumber My Darling," in which a parent or spouse watches a sleeping loved one, reveling in—perhaps even slightly covetous of—the comfort and refuge afforded in those precious moments: "Sounds of the rude world heard in the day/lulled by the moonlight have all passed away." Foster’s charming poetry never literally invokes a singular Supreme Being, but in images like these he nonetheless captures hushed, sacred scenes of profound meaning.
While Foster was among the first to sympathetically portray African-Americans in songs drawn from their own culture, his moving "Hard Times Come Again No More" depicts "frail forms fainting at the door" yet omits the promise of redemption so prevalent in Negro spirituals. The song’s chilling, prayer-like interpretation by gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples, if only by implication, introduces the presence of a God presumably distant to Foster, who endured a traumatic childhood, a failed marriage and poverty late in his brief life. (Historical accounts indicate, however, that he turned to hymn writing in his final years.)
Even during his peak of popularity, though, the composer had an acute sense of pain and beauty, which mingled heartrendingly in his most memorable work. If Foster’s music was a compassionate gift to the common folk of his generation, so is the caringly rendered Beautiful Dreamer a savory treat to a flavor-of-the-week pop culture that can only dream of a world as uncomplicated as it was when these ageless songs were first heard.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.