Should we change Foster's songs to remove their racist aspects, or not perform them?
The songs of Stephen Foster are, especially the minstrel songs, are problematic today. And perhaps quite rightly they are. In 1996 I know members of the Yale Glee Club decided not to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" because they considered it to be racially derisive. I think that that's somewhat unfortunate because it's a song that grew out of a minstrel tradition but was critical of the minstrel tradition. And in many ways it's a song that enabled us to begin to undo racial bigotry and prejudices that exist in this country. But I also understand at the same time -- it's the old thing, minstrelsy is many things to many people. But I understand, too, that it's so embedded in the tradition of derision that people want nothing to do with even the association of it. Minstrelsy is certainly something that should not enjoy any kind of resurrection at all today. The associations are certainly too strong there.
I think we're losing something in not repeating his lyrics or in adapting them, changing them to make them more politically correct, because he was trying to blend some things and create an awareness that we need to remember. It's part of black history and it's part of American history and you can't change history. It's good to reflect on it. I think it's more important to study history as it is, lest we ever repeat ourselves.
Stephen Foster's music today is deeply embarrassing for two reasons. First of all, because of the obvious racial epithets and caricatures and stereotypes that he uses, which were typical of the time and unfortunately are still typical of our time today. Secondly, and perhaps even more embarrassing, is his extreme sentimentality in an age that prides itself on being ironic and cool.
It's important to come to terms with Stephen Foster because we have to understand the racial complexity of American culture. It won't do any good, I believe, simply to sweep Stephen Foster under the rug of political correctness and ignore both the racism that is endemic in his music and the many instances in which his music transcends that racism. How can we understand our past, which created what we are today, without looking this in the eye -- and hearing it in the ear? To this day Stephen Foster's music touches on what unites us as Americans and also on what divides us.
I think we must find a way to learn and grow from people and respect their context. It's too easy and too unfair to just simply write someone off until we've actually looked through their eyes at their world. That Stephen Foster wrote songs in an idiom that is just simply an anathema to me as an American, to me as a human being in the 1990s, and that I would never possibly think in any form of either wanting to hear or sing -- that's true. The fact that we can see it from both sides and have to see it from both sides is infinitely more important in a questioning process than the right answer.
It would be historically inaccurate for me, as a musicologist, to suggest that we abandon a repertory of music which is so historical because of the racial insensitivity of some of the text. I believe as a teacher, and as a historian, that they should be placed in the historical context and people should understand where these songs fit and why. Personally I would not be singing them as a part of my musical entertainment today, but I have great respect for them and I would introduce them to my students because it's a part of the American culture and American heritage.
The relevance of studying Foster is not unlike the relevance of studying Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. What you have, in both cases, are works that reach very deeply into major American paradoxes, historical contradictions around race, racism and slavery, and the nature of artistic production. Huckleberry Finn is, I think -- this is hotly debated now -- but it's ambiguous to this day in ways that I think still one could make a fairly defensible argument for withholding [it] from school students until a certain age, 13 and 14, when they're able to deal with certain of the racial implications. Foster is no less ambiguous. When I got Foster's songs in grade school, they're such terrific melodies that it's almost a crime not to parlay the melodies into the classroom setting but if I got the racist lyrics, I don't remember it. And that may just be the condition of being white in America, but I think that there's a kind of evasion of the full implications of Foster.
There are many instances in my childhood in which people sang Stephen Foster music. At summer camps, there was lots of singing around the campfire. And what do you sing around the campfire? Well, religious songs drop out because everybody at the camp isn't necessarily of one religion. So these classic American songs came to be the music that you would learn at camp or at school or someplace like that. So I learned many of these songs, usually with changed lyrics. That's one of the reasons why I emphasize that the lyrics have changed over the years. The most offensive of the lyrics used words like "nigger" which would have been common in the 1840s or 1850s [but] the lyrics that I was taught didn't have that in them. So actually I loved Stephen Foster songs as a child and basically in a sense, still do. I think that they are catchy, wonderful, popular tunes that really reflect something interesting about the United States. But I think it is necessary to adapt them, maybe by just learning the instrumental, just learning the melody or by changing the lyrics, learning the changed lyrics because to sing them in their original form would be, I think, just perpetuating a stereotype that is no longer useful or no longer helpful or no longer functions in the same way in American society as it did in the 1840s and 1850s.
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