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  • "Forever in Our Ears":Nature, Voice, and Sentiment in Stephen Foster's Parlor Style
  • Susan Key (bio)

I hear her melodies, like joys gone by,Sighing round my heart o'er the fond hopes that die:Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,Wailing for the lost one that comes not again: Oh!

—Stephen Foster, "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"

Stephen Foster's songs embody the simultaneous loss and opportunity of his rapidly industrializing society. While nineteenth-century Americans struggled with the loss of their agrarian identity, they also embraced new commercial means of expressing that loss. New popular novels, journals, and sheet-music titles conveyed a shared national nostalgia in a sentimental style whose emphasis on feeling was shaped by romantics from abroad but given a distinctively American character by native-born composers and writers. By mid-century, the industrial and creative capacity of the young nation united to produce a flood of sentimental products that expressed high-minded values and profound sentiments through everyday vernacular and common domestic scenes. [End Page 290]

A distinctive feature of Stephen Foster's parlor songs (as well as sentimental minstrel songs) throughout his career is the frequency with which sentimental expression makes overt reference to vocal sounds: sighing, sobbing, warbling, gurgling, whispering, murmuring. More than any other quality, Foster's lyrics assert the primacy of the voice, and it is a theme that unites Foster's sentimental songs throughout his lifetime in both parlor and minstrel genres.

The voice, however, is not exclusively human; rather, Foster also celebrates the voice of nature, often setting up a series of echoes between human and natural sounds. In "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," for example, Jeanie's melodies are "sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain."1 The use of both simile and onomatopoeia creates an especially vivid and intimate connection between music and words, animating the visual images and using the voice as both medium and message.

Foster's biography offers insight into the significance of nature to his aesthetic approach. But it also incorporates a broader cultural conception of music that reflects contemporary attitudes toward the relationships among society, nature, and music. Foster's handling of these relationships reflects a special sensitivity to the possibilities of sentimentality as well as to the amateur singers he was writing for and the audience that heard them. In this article I will lay out some observations about sentimentality and Foster's use of nature and voice within this context. Rather than asserting a definitive conclusion, I hope that this essay will stimulate further dialogue among scholars of nineteenth-century song.

The subjects most commonly treated in sentimental songs by Foster and his contemporaries reflect both the realities of and the emotional responses to factors faced by nineteenth-century Americans as the nation industrialized: migration from rural to urban life, economic uncertainty, and the high rate of mortality among infants and young women. When family friend Mary Keller died, for example, Foster responded with "Where is thy Spirit Mary?" (1847). And in 1854, the year Foster published "Hard Times Come Again No More," his family was caught in a general economic crisis. As historian Ken Emerson describes:

Distress was widespread in Allegheny City and Pittsburg in 1854. Unemployment had reached unprecedented levels that spring, and in the summer cholera struck once again, killing four hundred people in just two weeks. . . . George Templeton Strong noted in December that "Hard Times" were "the general subject of talk."2

Sentimentality is not the only expressive strategy that could have been employed to respond to such conditions, but it is particularly well suited to a context in which those conditions created a new relationship between individuals and their material surroundings. Sentimental songs revolve [End Page 291] around specific objects or individuals that represent the tangible aspect of whatever loss has brought the narrator/singer to this emotional point.3 The focus on the specific object is sometimes obscured by the focus on the emotion it evokes, but both are essential to the sentimental aesthetic.

This use of the tangible as a tool to evoke intangible feelings gives vividness to the emotional vibration between...


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pp. 290-307
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