Monday, June 30, 2014

Stephen Foster and American Popular Song

With Independence Day just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to spend July looking at various composers distinctly known for creating an “American” sound in their music. I use quotations in this instance because, at the end of the day, I believe it is up to you as the listener to decide whether a piece of music has musical qualities unique to our nation.

I find it ironic that the first American composer to make a living solely off of writing popular songs was born on the Fourth of July. In honor of Stephen Foster’s 188th birthday this week, let’s spend some time looking at his music and discussing the obvious nostalgic qualities that emanate his work.

During the Industrial Revolution (c. 1820–1870), many Americans experienced feelings of nostalgia and longed for the simple life of plow and hearth after their move to industrial centers. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Stephen Foster immortalized his own sentiments in his songs, which struck a chord for many Americans. In Foster’s work, listeners can sense the subject of nostalgia to include the longing for a place, person, or time. The music, lyrics, and topics in many of these songs represent one of two different types of nostalgia as defined by Harvard comparative literature professor Svetlana Boyom in her book The Future of Nostalgia: restorative or reflective. This week, let’s look at each type, mapping them on to a Foster tune that exemplifies these particular sentiments. 

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