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  • The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster's Plantation Melodies
  • Steven Saunders (bio)

One of Stephen Collins Foster's first published songs, "There's a Good Time Coming," offers one of the composer's clearest statements on nineteenth-century culture and politics.1 The text—not by Foster, but by the Scottish-born poet and writer Charles Mackay—catalogues many of the chief cultural barriers of the nineteenth century, including ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender. Its text proclaims hopefully:

Worth, not birth shall rule mankind.Shameful rivalries of creed shall not make the martyr bleed.And a poor man's family shall not be his misery.Let us aid it all we can, ev'ry woman, ev'ry man.

The song presents a progressive, utopian vision of a not-too-distant future, the "good time coming," where barriers of religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status will come crashing down and where war and child labor will vanish. In choosing to set this text, Foster seems to have taken one of his few clear public stances on social issues.2 Few of Foster's published songs are so openly political, yet the idea of Stephen Foster as a composer with a progressive political agenda has become widespread, particularly among scholars of American music. This perspective is usually articulated through one of two narrative tropes about Foster and [End Page 275] his music. The first might be called "the musical melting pot," which asserts that Foster skillfully amalgamated musical styles of various ethnic groups, forging a polyglot, yet nonetheless recognizably American musical language. The ability of listeners of diverse ethnicities to identify with the various stylistic features of Foster's music not only allowed it to become one of America's first widely shared cultural experiences, but also contributed to American acculturation and assimilation.3

The second trope is one that Jennie Lightweis-Goff has dubbed "Stephen Foster's conversion narrative."4 According to the conversion narrative, Foster, after penning several early songs that contained deplorable racial stereotypes of blacks, sought to impart a more elevated tone to minstrelsy. Perhaps influenced by Charles Shiras, an ardent abolitionist and close friend, he penned increasingly sympathetic portrayals of African Americans living under slavery, shed the use of dialect, and had African American characters express subtle, complex emotions, using the musical gestures that typified the more genteel parlor song. In songs like "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Black Joe," and "Old Folks at Home," Foster created a hybrid genre, sometimes called the "plantation melody," that melded elements of minstrel song and parlor ballad. Through this process, he humanized rather than caricatured blacks, thereby promoting racial tolerance and understanding.

These tropes intersect in a number of ways, but the second, dealing with the volatile issues of racism, slavery, and black subjectivity, is both the more prevalent and the more widely contested. The tenets central to this reading of Foster's music appeared as early as the antebellum era. Foster family friend Robert P. Nevin, for example, wrote that: "the art in [Foster's] hands teemed with a nobler significance. It dealt, in its simplicity, with universal sympathies, and taught us all to feel with the slaves the lowly joys and sorrows it celebrated."5 Even earlier, in 1855, Fredrick Douglass conceded similarly that

it would seem almost absurd to say it, considering the use that has been made of them, that we have allies in the Ethiopian songs; those songs that constitute our national music, and without which we have no national music. They are heart songs and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. "Lucy Neal," "Old Kentucky Home," and "Uncle Ned" can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.6

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the theme of Foster's empathy for African Americans living under slavery was taken up and amplified by some of the major figures in the burgeoning field of American music, and Foster's intent to articulate a political program [End Page 276] was increasingly emphasized. Charles...


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