13 January 2019

De Ole Folks at Bay, or Massa's in de Cole Cole Ribber


I
t’s Stephen Foster Memorial Day in the United States, for what that’s worth. This racist composer of some of the most insipid songs ever to bore into a listener’s brain apparently has his own day—the day of his untimely death, like those honoring Χian saints and martyrs. Why I don’t know. It’s not as if we don’t have real composers in this country to honor—Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, Ornette Coleman, Florence Price, or Billy Strayhorn (to name but a few).
Ah, but who can forget such beloved compositions as “Massa’s in de Cole Ground,” “Gwine ter Run all Night” (a.k.a. “Camptown Races”), “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” or “Old Folks at Home” (a.k.a. “Way down upon de Swanee River”)? I sure as hell wish I could. I could extend this list easily, but nausea overwhelms me. I mean, seriously, these are the lyrics to one of his most celebrated songs:
Camptown ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah! doo-dah!
Camptown race-track five miles long, Oh, doo-dah day!
I come down dah wid my hat caved in, Doo-dah! doo-dah!
I go back home wid a pocket full of tin, Oh, doo-dah day!
Gwine to run all night!
Gwine to run all day!
I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag,
Somebody bet on de bay.
Really? This clown deserves his own day? I guess in all fairness he’s not as fucking awful as Francis Scott Key, but that’s a low bar to get over. And he did write some catchy melodies, almost at a level with Barry Manilow. (Who can forget “Like a good neighbor | State Farm is there” or “You deserve a break today”? Again, I wish I could.) But is that really enough?
Seriously, anybody can write a Stephen Foster song. Just plunk away at the black keys on the piano, set it to a primitive harmony, ladle in syrupy lyrics about de ole plantation days, and you’re ready to go. An instant American classic.

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