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Various Artists, Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (American Roots Publishing)
by: Steve Horowitz

Stephen Foster was America's first rock and roller, if one defines rock as an inherently subversive genre that rebels against the popular values and norms of the time by combining African-American and country music traditions into something that's drawn from, but unique from both. When Elvis Presley did this in the 1950s, critics considered him a revolutionary. Foster did this more than a century before Presley came on the scene. Foster was born when the nation was a mere 50 years old, literally on July 4, 1826. History has incorporated Foster's seditiousness into something safe in a way similar to how Rockabilly went from being an anarchic statement into pop radio fodder. For Foster, and the performers of his time who sang his sheet music, putting on blackface and singing minstrel songs in the mid-19th century was as radical an act as Elvis gyrating his hips rhythm and blues style dressed in outlandish outfits like the "Race music" stars of his era. When Foster sang a song like "Nelly Was a Lady," it was clear that the woman he was singing about was black. To call a black woman a lady during slavery times was a defiant act. And think of the implications of "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," which concerns a black man pining away for his parents who live back on the plantation. Why can't the narrator go back home-will he be whipped and beaten as a runaway slave, or even killed? Foster makes the dreadful implications of such a visit clear through the singer's heavy melancholy and heartfelt yearning.

Both of these aforementioned tunes are present here (adeptly covered by blues man Alvin Youngblood Hart and Lone Star stylist David Ball respectively) along with 16 other of Foster's most popular songs, performed by a variety of rock, folk, country, blues, and gospel artists. This makes sense as all of these traditions have roots in Foster's repertoire. Raul Malo of The Mavericks croons a sunny version of "Beautiful Dreamer." Roger McGuinn does a Byrdsesque cover of "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair." Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson play the standard "Oh! Susanna" as if it's a syncopated bluegrass rag.

However the best versions of Foster's catalog are the grittiest. John Prine's throaty "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight" evokes the dirt on the cabin floor in which the little children roll around. Mavis Staples's aching vocals on "Hard Times Come Again No More" would seem appropriate in a hardscrabble rural church service. The Duhks turn "Camptown Races" into a lively, two-step Cajun stomp. All of the artists put their own stamp unique stamp on Foster's tunes, which both reveals their individual talents and Foster's ability to create music flexible enough to adapt to various interpretations and endure through the ages.

"Why should the beautiful ever weep?/Why should the beautiful die?" Foster asked existentially on "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Forever" (adroitly covered here by country chanteuse Suzy Bogguss). He deeply understood the ephemeral nature of life. Foster, a dreamer, drunkard and miscreant, died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. His music will continue to live on as long as people experience hard times and dream of something better.