Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Racist or the Casualty of Shallow Misinterpretation?

I. Stephen Collins Foster

A northerner and member of the abolitionist movement, Stephen Collins Foster sought to both reform minstrelsy (musical revues that caricatured blacks and mimicked them for comic effect) and, through his music, bring light to the plight of black people after Emancipation. His lyrics were in dialect (as was the fashion of the time), but with strict instructions to perform with sympathy.

Oh Susanna

Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

Of course, much of this is considered racist nowadays, and his music has been struck off the curricula of many schools (not to mention publishers of his works threatened with boycotts). Judged with current standards, perhaps he was. Viewed in context, however, he is still an important contributor to American popular culture. If we weren't so sensitive about offending others, perhaps there could be constructive dialogue about the nature of his writing, the racial climate of the times, current interpretations.

1 comment:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

The absence of racial allusions is one reason why "Hard Times" is Foster's most popular song in this generation. (It's been covered by Mary Black, Bob Dylan, and many others, and used in the movie GEORGIA.) Also, it's one of his loveliest and most moving songs.