Q&A With Deane Root: Pitt’s Center for American Music creates Stephen Foster songbook, sets plans for remembrance of songwriter this week

Issue Date: 
January 11, 2010

As Pitt’s Center for American Music prepares its annual remembrance of songwriter Stephen Foster’s death on Jan. 13, 1864, the Pitt Chronicle’s Sharon Blake interviewed Deane Root, Pitt professor of music and the Fletcher Hodges Jr. Curator of Pitt’s Foster Hall Collection. He discussed the significance of the new Foster songbook, Stephen Collins Foster: Sixty Favorite Songs, recently released by the Center for American Music, which Root directs. He also explained the factors behind Foster’s popularity across the globe—and the uncanny adaptability of the songwriter’s prose.

What is special or significant about this particular Foster songbook, Stephen Collins Foster: Sixty Favorite Songs?

This is the first Foster songbook created at the University of Pittsburgh, which serves as the world’s repository for the Foster library, archive, and museum materials. When the University established the Stephen Foster Memorial in 1937, it continued to issue a songbook that had been commissioned in 1934 by the collection’s founder, Josiah K. Lilly of Indianapolis. That  collection of 40 songs was last printed in 1978, and it has been in constant demand and use ever since. Several publishers have issued Foster songbooks, but this is the first 21st-century Foster songbook. It also is the first songbook whose contents were selected by editors who worked with the original manuscripts and printed materials at the Stephen Foster Memorial and who based their selection on worldwide interest and usage of the songs over the last three decades. Finally, this songbook includes a few pieces never before included in any of the previous Foster collections.

Is it the first Foster songbook in which the text was revised to eliminate objectionable lyrics? Can you give an example of how the texts have been changed?

The changes in lyrics would be most noticeable in Foster’s two-dozen minstrel songs (about half of which are included in the songbook) that appeared originally in dialect, but other changes have been made as well.

This is not the first publication to do this—other publishers of Foster’s songs have altered Foster’s lyrics. However, this is the first songbook to apply research that has been done regarding  Foster’s compositional process, his life and times, and interpretations of his lyrics by  successive generations of singers  in the United States and globally. This songbook seeks to create a version of the lyrics that remains as close as possible to the songwriter’s sentiments while removing anachronistic social, ethnic, and other references that hold altogether different meanings today—and that divert listeners’ attention from the principal messages.

How do you feel about not presenting the text in its original form?

We previously created a scholarly edition of Foster’s complete works, with both music and text in their “original form,” meaning we identified the one most authentic source that stemmed from the composer, charted variants in the manuscripts and editions that appeared during his lifetime, and created the most authoritative version possible. This two-volume edition, The Music of Stephen C. Foster: A Critical Edition (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990) was edited by Steven Saunders and myself. Those who want to know—or to perform—Foster’s “original” words can find them there and study many of the changes Foster made in his drafts by examining the digitized images of his manuscript sketchbook through the University Library System’s Digital Research Library, http://images.library.pitt.edu/cgi-bin/i/image/image-idx?c=sketchbook.

What many readers might not know is that Foster understood that his music would be adapted to suit needs and circumstances, whether within his own circle of friends and family, or by singers and musicians everywhere. He himself freely adapted his own songs as well as  those of his contemporaries, in a process not unlike “sampling” in popular song today. He was aware of countless variations and reinterpretations of his words and music during his own lifetime. The notion that there would be only one “original” version of a popular song would have seemed extraordinary to a songwriter of Foster’s era.

What is new about the song arrangements?

The arrangements are based on the critical edition mentioned above. They add guitar chord symbols; correct mistakes, such as faulty spelling and punctuation, in the early printed copies; and use 21st-century placement of performance markings (such as loud and soft indications, and held notes), among other things. The songbook includes one page on these changes, titled “About the Edition.”

Describe the role played by the Center for American Music in compiling this edition.

The center coordinated the project, identifying the most experienced and qualified scholars—Steven Saunders and Joanna Smolko, who both earned their PhDs at Pitt—to serve as editors; contacting publishers; proofreading; and helping select the songs.

Why were Foster’s songs so appealing in the 19th century?

Foster had the rare ability to write lyrical poetry and melodies that were memorable, and that took on meaning within the lives of people with divergent backgrounds and experiences.  As Harper’s Magazine (March, 1864) put it shortly after the composer’s death, “The air is full of his melodies. They are whistled, and sung, and played on all instruments everywhere. Their simple pathos touches every heart. They are our national music.” The songs fit into the social ideologies of many people in all social classes and ethnic backgrounds during the composer’s lifetime. They achieved unprecedented familiarity throughout American society—and, indeed, worldwide—and they were called (somewhat mythically) America’s first folk songs. Foster had the ability to match seemingly simple poetical phrases and melodies that appeared to contemporaries to be distinctly American. Indeed, they had not existed elsewhere, because Foster created them by adapting and blending styles of song brought to this country from many cultures in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, and by choosing subjects and sentiments shared across class and racial boundaries.

Why has his music always been popular with the Japanese?

The Japanese school curriculum in music, founded in the late 19th  century by an American educator, Luther Whiting Mason, used three Western composers’ music as models: Mozart, Schubert, and Foster. In the 20th century, Japanese composers wrote school songs, called shoka songs, based on these models. Because music is a part of the curriculum for all Japanese, Foster’s songs have been part of their childhood experience for more than a century.

What was the reaction of Japanese First Lady Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, when she visited the Foster museum during the G20 Summit and viewed the artifacts?

She asked questions about how he wrote the songs and what their meaning was, and she expressed how beautiful she found the instruments and melodies. I played two tunes on 19th-century mechanical instruments for her: an 1880s roller organ (“My Old Kentucky Home,” with which she sang along) and an 1890’s music-box disc (“Old Folks at Home”).

What is Stephen Foster’s most significant contribution to American history?

Comparable to the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which was also taken into parlors and shared among families and children, Foster’s songs about slaves (especially those written between 1849 and 1855) changed attitudes of White Americans toward human bondage. The songs, which like the novel countered standard parlor and stage depictions, offered a shared sense of longing for self-determination, the sanctity of the family, and having a place to call home. The former slave and great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass (in a speech to the Rochester, N.Y., Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in 1855) said of some of Foster’s slave songs, “It would seem almost absurd to say it, considering the use that has been made of them, that we have allies in the Ethiopian songs…. “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Uncle Ned,” can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.”