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  • Foster's Songs in Japan
  • Kazuko Miyashita (bio)

Since the late nineteenth century, Stephen Foster's songs have been among the best-known American music in Japan for his simple, familiar tunes, which Japanese people associate with pastoral scenery or nostalgia for their native place or their childhood. Most Japanese students learn a number of Foster's songs in their music classes, from elementary through high school.

Figure 1 shows several examples from music textbooks published in 2001. Japanese people also often hear his melodies on TV commercials and in many public places. Generally, their image of Foster is of a happy songwriter, but they have paid little attention to his life itself in the context of American history. In fact, many Japanese regard his music as part of their own cultural heritage.

My first encounter with Foster's songs occurred in my middle school music class in the 1960s. I still remember singing songs such as "Oh, Susanna," "Old Folks at Home," "Old Black Joe," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "My Old Kentucky Home." I was also interested in their English lyrics, for it was at the time when Japanese children start to [End Page 308]

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Figure 1a.

"Massa's in de Cold Ground"

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Figure 1b.

"My Old Kentucky Home"

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Figure 1c.

"Old Folks at Home"

[End Page 309]

learn English. In high school, I found the lyrics of "Beautiful Dreamer" too difficult to understand.

Later as a graduate student in the 1980s, I took the course "History of American Music" taught by Dr. William J. Mahar at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg.1 That is where I first learned of the relationship between Stephen Foster and blackface minstrelsy, for which he had written his dialectal songs or plantation melodies. This helped me to interpret Foster's songs from varied perspectives in an American historical context.

In the summer of 1997, I was able to conduct research at the Stephen Foster Memorial of the University of Pittsburgh and discuss Foster with its director, Dr. Deane L. Root. All kinds of Fosteriana there helped me to grasp a clearer picture of Foster and understand the historical background and geographical setting of the Pittsburgh area in which he lived. There I found a fascinating manuscript, "Beautiful Dreamers: The Founding of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1927-1937, the Working-in, and the Aftermath," written by Geraldine M. Bair in 1990, which explains how the Foster Collection was launched by Josiah Lilly in Indianapolis in 1931 and donated to the University of Pittsburgh upon completion of the Memorial in 1937.2

From September 1999 through January 2000, I was fortunate to be able to return to Pittsburgh as a Fulbright scholar. During that time, I attended the ceremonies at Allegheny Cemetery, Trinity Cathedral, and the Schenley Park statue of Stephen Collins Foster marking Foster Day on January 13, 2000, the 136th anniversary of his death. These ceremonies prompted me to consider the significance of Foster and his music, which have been a part of Japanese life for the past 110 years. He has played an important role as a cultural bridge between Japan and the United States. I was also thinking about Stephen Foster as a Japanese experience, a tradition unknown to the American people.

In April, 2001, the Public Broadcasting Service aired Stephen Foster:America's First Great Songwriter in its American Experience series, the first television documentary on Foster.3 The film took great pains to explore the meaning behind his music and the ways in which American understanding and interpretation of the songs have changed over time. I obtained the videotape and have shown it to both my students and the general public from time to time. I was so intrigued by the film's gracefully silhouetted choreography of Thomas "Daddy" Rice's "Jump Jim Crow"—meant to illustrate minstrel performers' early influence on Foster—that I explained to viewers how much time and effort the choreographers spent finalizing their performance. Many said that they were surprised to learn something new about Stephen Foster...


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