When Stephen Foster died 140 years ago, one of pop music's first statistics -- booze and economic foolishness combining to drop him in a Bowery flophouse -- he wasn't just the greatest American songwriter of that century. He was, arguably, the first truly "pop" American songwriter. Pop, that is, in the sense of a synthesis of America's disparate and often opposing cultural tattoos: African musical tradition and contemporary racist minstrelsy; Brit-originated trad-song nativism and Italian and German immigrant ethnicities; the optimism of big, wide America and the plea for those "Hard Times, Come Again No More."
On Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, artists as diverse as honky-tonkers BR5-49 and cellist Yo-Yo Ma tackle 18 Foster classics, shining new light on the Lawrenceville-born songwriter, his enduring work and his life's equally enduring lesson to American artists: Don't get Foster'd. But that new light isn't always flattering to a songwriter whose work, especially his best-known songs ("Camptown Races," "Oh, Susanna"), has so often been discarded for the specter of minstrelsy and the weight of nostalgic Americana. Beautiful Dreamer does little to ease those burdens, with its easily dismissed NPR-smooth aesthetic lack of "frail forms fainting at the door," to borrow from Foster's masterpiece. "Though their voices are silent," Foster's "Hard Times" continues, "their pleading looks will say / Oh! Hard times, come again no more." Beautiful Dreamer says a lot, but very little of it with the pleading looks and lingering song that Foster's work is capable of.
There are moments where the almost irreducibly American themes of Foster's unmistakable talent shine through, once again proving his songs to be permanent fixtures in our musical landscape. John Prine's "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight" sounds, like anything Prine does, like a song John Prine wrote the day before yesterday. Mavericks singer Raul Malo's Mexicali-cowboy version of "Beautiful Dreamer" could be Marty Robbins in the '60s -- or the Mavericks today. Roger McGuinn's electro-beat Byrds send-up of "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" is about as contemporary as McGuinn will ever be, despite its intrinsic 19th-century parlor nostalgia. Perhaps the finest moments on Beautiful Dreamer are, in fact, instrumentals: Henry Kaiser's bizarre santour (Persian dulcimer), Eastern percussion and overdistorted guitar arrangement of "Autumn Waltz" and Will Barrow's straight, jaunty "Holiday Schottisch" are each perfect in their own rights.
But for a large part, Beautiful Dreamer taps that strange musical vein in which triple-A (adult album alternative) radio seeks to replicate the soulful longings and passion of so-called traditional musics in a way that walks softly between thorny hedges of recklessness and abandon. The result is, for example, Ollabelle, the current triple-A darlings, transforming the goosebump-devastation of Foster's throat-filler "Gentle Annie" into just another half-ethereal soundtrack march. One can barely read these lyrics -- "we have roamed and loved mid the bowers / when thy downy cheeks were in their bloom / now I stand alone mid the flowers / while they mingle their perfumes o'er thy tomb" -- without choking. Yet Ollabelle's myriad of over-produced singers manages to sing it as though auditioning for Sting.
It seems fitting for Foster's songs to form the basis of American Roots Publishing's self-benefiting disc: ARP's mission is to help create a "new model of dissemination and sponsorship of regional literature and art due to the mass-marketing nature of our society and reduction of government support in the arts." In many ways, Foster was the first victim of this process -- the financial and psychological ruin of an individual by the same pop-culture mechanisms that should have led to his benefit.
How far we came culturally in those 63 years between Foster's death, with 37 cents in his pocket, to the arrival in Bristol, Tenn., of Ralph Peer and the Victor Talking Machine Company. Beginning that summer in Bristol, the Carter Family -- led by the savvy A.P. Carter -- wrote songs, rewrote standards, and declared traditional songs theirs for years of recordings that formed the bedrock of what we now think of as country music. Listening to the simultaneously released The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family and Beautiful Dreamer side by side, it's remarkable how similar these songs are: nostalgic ruminations on home and family, woeful fear and unexpected optimism, melodies and harmonies that ring in our ears as something that belongs to us as a nation and a people.
Yet how different the stories behind these songs, and the attitudes attached to them. The earliest days of the record industry had no savvier proponent than A.P. Carter, who rolled with punches and rode waves of popularity and more often than not got his name on the dotted line. And those recordings, perhaps, hold the key to the psycho-historical difference between Foster's and Carter's songs in our American canon: Foster was too early, a recording-era star caught in a pre-record industry; a thief and borrower, from black and white America, immigrant cities, and Appalachian down-home rural locales, before the slate-wiping capitalism of the record biz made that all part of the process. Both stole, borrowed, and out-and-out pillaged for their songs, yet Carter's never seem to wholly disappear from the charts -- in influence if not in name.
The latest round of Carter-worship is The Unbroken Circle, part homage by producer John Carter Cash, heir to country's most holy crowns, to his genealogical goldmine, part attempted shot-in-the-arm to the Carter Family legacy post-June and Johnny Cash. But where Beautiful Dreamer is adulterated by confused, half-hearted attempts to simultaneously modernize and canonize Foster's music, The Unbroken Circle succeeds at matter-of-factly reminding listeners of the evergreen nature of the Carter hymnbook. George Jones or Del McCoury or Johnny Cash could sing the phone book -- or even Sting -- and make you holler and cry, so ignore their (ho-hum) excellent, stirring contributions. Check out Sheryl Crow doing "No Depression in Heaven," a song somewhere between Foster's tough-times tunes and Woody Guthrie's dustbowl ballads. Crow's TV-commercial singing style should corrupt this desperate plea, but somehow the song's simple perfection elevates her game beyond its normal capabilities.
One could never say that the Carter or Foster songbook is better than the other, nor that any recording of either's tunes could prove definitive. But, despite an excellent cause in American Roots Publishing and some true gems like those of Kaiser and Prine and the haunting minimal "Willie We Have Missed You" by Grey De Lisle, Beautiful Dreamer comes over cold, unlike Foster's warm, powerful songs. Meanwhile, The Unbroken Circle feels less like a reassessment or revival and more like a musical Sunday meal: nothing new, but nothing outdated either, just another hour in satisfying sanctuary.