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The Pure, The Bright, The Beautiful by Nigel Roth

There are photos of people who were born more than two-hundred years ago, and we often look at them with a distance that we can’t possibly close, because it’s simply too long in the past that these people lived.

In most cases, the need to sit perfectly still for an extended period of time for the photo not to have blurred, means the subject often takes on an odd prospect. Slightly staring eyes, an austere facade, a look of confusion, even a scared countenance. None of which are probably a true reflection of the sitter’s nature.

And then there's that photo, taken around 1860, of Stephen Collins Foster, which shows more clearly than any other photo I’ve ever seen, a man in torment.

As the Fourth of July celebrations exploded across the fifty-year-old nation, Foster was born, becoming the youngest of ten children. His parents had migrated from Scotland to the ancient northern province of Ulster, which Northern Ireland now sits in, and then on to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where he grew up, attending schools that taught him grammar and diction, Latin and Greek, and penmanship, named after the founder William Penn.

Little is known about Foster’s early life, other than he was a good student, and taught himself to play the clarinet, the guitar, flute and piano, though not at the same time (as far as I know), and that when he got to Towanda, northwest of Wilkes-Barre, on the Susquehanna River, and with the cheery Algonquian meaning of ‘burial ground’, to train as an engineer with his brother Bill, he left as quickly as he got there. He seemed to favor the excitement and possibility of 1830s Pittsburgh over the workaday nature of most other places in Pennsylvania, none of which we’ve probably heard of and for good reason.

But Pittsburgh proved difficult for Foster too, and although we have no idea what he did there, other than visit wonderful friends on Squirrel Hill as I would, he sailed up the Ohio River on a bright steamship belonging to his brother Dunning McNair Foster's company, to the Queen City, Cincinnati, where he began to write, rather than bookkeep as he was supposed to do.

And write he did.

‘Oh Susannah’, did he write, like he was running in the ‘Camptown Races’ or something. ‘Whether Nelly Was a Lady’ or not he wrote. And as he wrote, he hoped that ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’, and reminisced about his ‘Old Kentucky Home’, where he never lived. He was a ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ though, and he dreamed of ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’ who sang to ‘Old Folks at Home’.

Of course, Foster had his critics, too.

Of his songs being ‘racist’, we can absolutely say the blackface minstrels who sang these songs were an abomination, and created, confirmed, and perpetuated the perception of the stratigraphic relationship of humans based on skin color, and that must be recognized and condemned, without excuse.

And, while the lyrics of some are absolutely disparaging to African Americans, like those in Old Folks at Home, some see this as Foster bringing to light the realities of slavery in a form he knew would be popular and therefore impactful, in the same way that Harriet Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book credited both with permanently ingraining African American stereotypes into the American psyche and, conversely, laying the fundamental groundwork for the American Civil War to end slavery.

And Foster didn’t write them for that purpose, rather, it appears, that genre adopted them. Further, he aligned himself far more with abolitionists of the time, like Charles Shiras, and even wrote an abolitionist play to promote a change in thinking and behavior. And, like Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain who saw nothing wrong with slavery in his youth, he seemed to shift his views over time, as he grew as an artist and evolved as a human.

Of his celebration of the Southern United States when slavery was still a foundation of the economy and integral to the way of life of Southerners, it’s true, many of his songs have Southern themes. Yet Foster never lived in the South and only visited once, on his honeymoon, with the rest of his life spent in the North, in Pennsylvania and then New York.

He certainly did write drinking songs, like ‘When the Bowl Goes Round’, but also songs in favor of temperance, like ‘Comrades Fill No Glass for Me’. And, he was equally at home composing Civil War ballads one month, and church hymns the next.

It’s also possible that Foster just liked writing songs, and his upbringing in the immigrant-rich cities, with myriad cultures and viewpoints, may have played a part in his ability to write for the occasion, from some emotional distance.

Whatever his motivation, he certainly wrote a lot, and his work has influenced several generations of musicians and filmmakers, artists and playwrights, and his ghost lives on in the works of Gordon Meredith Lightfoot and Neil Sedaka, of Arthur Ira Garfunkel and Percy Aldridge Grainger, and the delightfully-named Squirrel Nut Zippers. There are things named for him all across the States, and one statue that, for now, lies hidden under a blanket in a dark room, removed from view from the Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh.

A year before the dreadful Civil War ended, and the American slavery ethic was crushed, Foster is said to have become ill in his hotel room in New York City. He was discovered on the floor, naked, and bleeding profusely from a cut in his neck. His leather wallet held just one scrap of paper with the phrase, ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts’, and thirty-eight cents, one cent for each year of his life.

The knife he used was nearby.

While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was not diagnosed back in the 1860s, there is no doubt civilians who lived through the War and soldiers who fought in it, would have felt it, and been left with scars that untreated didn't heal. And, when social and cultural support is absent, as Kathleen Logothetis Thompson in Suicide and the Civil War in 2016 describes, psychological stress and suicide often follow.

Foster, who seems to have been somewhat alone on his tours of cities whose populations were eager to meet him and hear from the great composer himself, may have felt this keenly, as many do today, as a result of the pandemic reaction.

As we entered lockdown, and people took a breath from the relentless journey of their modern lives, suicide rates fell, until, as we began to return to those hardscrabble lives of scrimping and saving and trying to make ends meet, and enduring being locked-in with family members for what seems like an eternity, rates climbed again, and are still climbing. Mental health professionals echo the need for increased support for vulnerable people, something Foster never got.

And that statue, quite rightly removed because, though it depicts a contented-looking Foster in a bow tie and long coat, he is looking down to his right, where sits an African American man, probably a slave, strumming a banjo, and thus inextricably, and perhaps cruelly, links Foster with an acceptance, if not the support, of slavery.

Without the sculptor Giuseppe Moretti’s addition of the barefooted musician, the statue may well have stayed where it was, a symbol, not only to the ‘Father of American Music’, but also to the scourge of suicide, as prevalent today and as in need of our attention, as it was when Stephen Collins Foster hummed ‘Kiss Me Dear Mother Ere I Die’, in his hotel in the Bowery, in New York City, in 1864.

Photo by Ylanit Koppens

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