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Stephen Foster

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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Sheet music for Oh! SusannaThe film Stephen Foster and this companion Web site offer insights into topics in American history including the divide between North and South, slavery, minstrelsy, performing arts and popular entertainment, relations between the races, and the economics of cultural production. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. Read the excerpts below from Stephen Foster's song, "That's What's the Matter," written during the Civil War. (a) What is the song's attitude toward the South and toward the reasons for the Civil War? (b) As is explained in Stephen Foster Backs Buchanan, in the 1856 election Foster had backed the Democratic platform, which was pro-slavery. Was Foster being inconsistent in first backing Buchanan and then attacking the South for its secession? Explain.

That's What's the Matter
Oh! yes, we thought our neighbors true,
Indulg'd them as their mothers do;
They storm'd our bright Red, White and Blue,
And that's what's the matter!
We'll never give up what we gain,
For now we know we must maintain
Our Laws and Rights with might and main;
And that's what's the matter!

That's what's the matter,
The rebels have to scatter;
We'll make them flee,
By land and sea,
And that's what's the matter!

The rebels thought we could divide,
And Democrats would take their side;
They would let the Union slide,
And that's what's the matter!
But, when the war had once begun,
All party feeling soon was gone;
We join'd as brothers, ev'ry one!
And that's what's the matter!

2. Just as Stephen Foster's songs were shaped by the issues of his era (such as slavery and the divisions leading to the Civil War), more recent popular songs have reflected the times in which they were written, sung, and heard. Select a popular song from the 1900s that reflects its time and create a poster that presents part or all of the lyrics; illustrate the poster with photos or drawings of relevant historical events. Then give a brief oral presentation to the class in which you explain the link between the song and the events of that day. (Events about which numerous songs were written include the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War.)

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. Read a brief biography of Stephen Collins Foster, a timeline of Foster's life, and a profile of minstrel troupe leader Edward P. Christy, paying special attention to the reasons for Foster's many financial difficulties. (a) In what ways did artists in Foster's day receive less copyright protection than today? (b) Why do you think Foster regretted selling Christy the right to be known as the author of "The Old Folks at Home"? (c) Why was Foster unwise to sell the rights for his songs to Firth, Pond, & Co.? Why do you think he did it?

2. A controversial recent issue related to copyright protection for popular music concerns the online music service Napster, through which people have been able to share copyrighted music for free over the Internet. Divide the class into three groups, with each group researching a different aspect of this issue. One group should present the background on the lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America against Napster in 1999. A second group should describe the broad questions the case raises regarding copyright protection and free speech. A third group should suggest ways to balance artists' right to be paid for their work against the benefits to society of free and open distribution of information. Each group should report its findings to the class.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. Read the excerpts below from two of Stephen Foster's songs, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!" and "Old Folks at Home." (a) What is the attitude of the narrators toward the South? (For example, do they describe life in the South in positive or negative ways? Do the narrators currently live in the South, and if not, do they miss it?) (b) Since Stephen Foster never lived in the South, what might have been the source of the feelings described in the songs?

My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay,
The corn top's ripe and the meadows in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright:
By'n by Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky Home, good night!

Weep no more, my lady,
Oh! weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home,
For the old Kentucky Home far away.

Old Folks at Home
All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Dem many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I.
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb'ry where I roam,
Oh! darkeys how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.

2. (a) Two states have chosen songs by Stephen Foster as their state song. Using the Internet or other sources, find these two states, and their respective state songs. (b) What is your state's song? Copy down the lyrics of the song on a sheet of paper. Below the lyrics, write a paragraph explaining who wrote the song, when it became the official state song, and what attractions of the state it describes.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. Read a description of how the Yale Glee Club nixed Foster. (a) Why did some members of the Yale Glee Club refuse to sing Stephen Foster songs? (b) If you had been a member of the group, would you have voted to use the songs or to remove them from the program? Explain the reasons for your view. (c) Imagine that the issue at stake were not whether to sing a potentially objectionable song in a concert, but whether to assign a potentially objectionable novel for use in a college literature course. Would your position be the same as you described in part (b)? Explain.

2. Read Stephen Foster Backs Buchanan. Choose another American president and research his campaign song. (Lyrics for a few such songs can be found at the Library of Congress American Memory Web site. You might also consult the presidential libraries of individual presidents.) Why do you think this song was chosen to represent the candidate? What do its lyrics tell you about the message that the candidate was trying to present about himself or his opponent?

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