Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Longing for Days Gone By: Stephen Foster and Restorative Nostalgia

On Monday I presented two types of nostalgia defined by Harvard professor Svetlana Boym. Today, let’s focus on restorative nostalgia and look at how Stephen Foster uses this type of sentiment in his music.

Professor Boym defines restorative nostalgia as “attempt[ing] a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home.” Foster lived during a time marked by restorative nostalgia as America underwent a period of transition and experienced a series of changes brought on by the move to large industrial cities, leaving the rural farmland behind. Though excitement existed for the burgeoning urban centers, some Americans longed for the simple past: a past that in their minds, could be connected with their idealized lives in rural environments.
Of Foster’s forty-two nostalgic songs, restorative nostalgia or referencing past events, people, and places, characterizes thirty-seven of them. Though fictional, these songs reflect the past as relayed by the narrator’s experiences. The nostalgic narrator clearly speaks of a person, a home, or a time they once experienced. Those who endure this type of nostalgia spend their time attempting to restore the object for which they long. This restoration may be through memory or by physically bringing something of the past into their present situation.
The example I want to show you today is nostalgia resulting from the loss of a loved one. The nostalgic narrator of the song longs for a deceased person. Songs of this category contain reflections on a past experienced with the deceased individual, demonstrating that the narrator had some type of relationship with the deceased. Though actual physical restoration of the object of nostalgia is impossible, the narrator attempts to restore them through memories that in turn will help to heal the pain.

Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie” (1856), a parlor ballad, exemplifies restorative nostalgia: 

In the lyrics of “Gentle Annie,” phrases such as “Thou wilt come no more,” “thy spirit did depart,” “never more behold thee,” and “thy tomb” clarify to the performer and listener that the object of nostalgia has passed away. The narrator’s reflection on past experiences with the deceased individual shows his attempt to restore her to memory. Phrases such as “never hear thy winning voice again” and “the streams and meadows where we strayed” suggest that the narrator has heard Annie’s voice and walked with her through a meadow at some point in the past.

Stephen Foster’s ability to write songs characterized by restorative nostalgia led to his overwhelming popularity among 19th-century Americans. Despite his ability to create music defining the sentiments of the world around him, Foster’s personal life was characterized by reflective nostalgia. On Friday, we will look at an example of reflective nostalgia in Foster’s music.

Interested in Stephen Foster and his music? Then don’t forget to tune in to 90.9 WGUC July 3 at 8:00pm for a Stephen Foster special hosted by Naomi Lewin!

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