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Stephen Foster

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People & Events: The Yale Glee Club Nixes Foster

In the fall of 1996, Stephen Foster's songs drew fire from members of one of Yale University's most esteemed clubs. The Yale Glee Club had been invited to sing at the Bard College Festival at New York's Lincoln Center. The Festival planned a tribute to composer Charles Ives, a member of the Glee Club and the Yale Class of 1898. A portion of the program focused on the music popular during Ives' tenure at Yale. Among the songs in this part of the program were three Stephen Foster songs, including "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!"

The Glee Club began rehearsal for the Bard Festival in the fall of 1996. Just two days after the Stephen Foster songs were introduced to the club's members, Kimberly Daniel and Aurore Victor, the club's only African American members, announced they would refuse to sing them. At the heart of the controversy were Foster's allegedly racist lyrics. "I objected to the songs," said Victor, "because they were historically inaccurate, used derogatory statements, and glorified slavery."

This was not the first time that songs associated with American slavery had caused controversy. In 1997 the Virginia senate voted to remove "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" as its state song because of lyrical references to "darkeys" and "old massa." The song, written in 1875 during the Reconstruction Era, expresses a prevalent myth of the time among some white Americans that blacks were failing in the post-Civil War economy and were better off in slavery. Florida legislators tried, but failed, to revoke state song status from Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," also because of a lyrical reference to "darkeys."

In a Yale Glee Club meeting about the Foster controversy, some members favored withdrawal of the Foster songs. Others, including Glee Club Director David Connell, argued that the lyrics should be viewed in their historical context, and that the Foster songs should be performed. By the meeting's end, the club had decided not to sing "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!" In an attempt to put the controversy behind the group, Glee Club president Erik Lien publicly burned a copy of the song.

Controversy over whether to perform the other two songs continued. While some Yalies bemoaned the rise of political correctness, an editorial in the Yale Daily News declared that "America's Slave Past Belongs in Museums," not in performances at Lincoln Center. Eventually, another Foster song was deleted from the Bard Festival program. And within the month, Victor and Daniel announced they would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the Glee Club.

Stephen Foster himself described the lyrics of blackface minstrel songs as "the trashy and really offensive." He was among the first popular songwriters to create songs that depicted black men and women with individual dignity. But more than a century after his death, the struggle to reconcile his musical and poetic talent with his controversial lyrics remained.

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