By Kathleen Ballantyne
Composer and Ithaca Children and Youth Chorus, Artistic Director
“Oh! Susannah,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races” are only some of the songs that many of us learned in childhood and have come to embrace as part of the quintessential American musical identity. Though they have become so universally popular and regarded as simply folksongs, all three tunes were written by Stephen Collins Foster.
Foster was, in fact, America’s first true professional composer, since unlike his contemporaries, he earned his income from songwriting only, rather than a combination of performing, teaching, and writing.
Despite being known as “The Father of American Music,” Foster was plagued by financial insolvency throughout his life. A series of bad business decisions by his father led to the loss of the family home overlooking the Allegheny River when Stephen was a boy. Stephen’s fortunes weren’t much better once he was on his own: between rampant copyright infringement and poor contractual negotiations, Foster struggled to make ends meet throughout most of his life.
“Camptown Races,” one of Foster’s earliest and most relentlessly plagiarized hits, is one of 10 iconic and beloved Foster classics arranged by Mark Hayes in The Stephen Foster Collection. Energetic and playful, “Camptown Races” embodies all of the illicit excitement of betting on horse racing, which was banned outright in Foster’s native Pennsylvania in 1820.
A vivid description of the sights and sounds of the racetrack is found in the lyrics, while the accompaniment captures the trotting, bobbing, and galloping of the horses. Hayes adds some humorous touches to the arrangement as well: the verse that starts “Ol’ muley cow come on to the track” plods along at a slower tempo, with frequent stops and starts, before settling into a jaunty waltz feel in one at the familiar chorus of “Goin’ to run all night!”
“Beautiful Dreamer,” the song perhaps most closely associated with Foster, is also another standout selection from The Stephen Foster Collection. Though widely advertised by publishers as “the last song Stephen Foster ever wrote,” it appears that it was actually written more than a year before his untimely demise. A tender lullaby, Foster’s original music and words are deeply moving. Mark Hayes’s arrangement features softly undulating arpeggiated piano accompaniment and freedom of tempo, encouraging expressive performance.
Over the course of his 20-year career as a songwriter, Stephen Foster wrote more than 280 songs and even though it was a short career, Foster’s work has sustained his legacy for over 190 years. To learn more about The Stephen Foster Collection, visit http://goo.gl/N5yLIK. To watch the trailer, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jsQft4C6IA.