- Stephen Foster's Music in Motion Pictures and Television
It is a plot you could only expect to find in a Lifetime original movie, the network known for producing over-the-top women in jeopardy stories. In Friends Til the End (1997) a timid young girl named Zane is prodded by her oppressive mother to compete in a talent show in which she is clearly reluctant to perform.1 She mounts the stage and begins singing Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." Her mother smiles encouragingly as the song heads toward its soaring high notes. Zane falters, the notes come out absurdly flat, and she leaves the stage in tears only to be berated by her mother for her failure.
From this point on in the film, Zane, now a tortured, driven young woman, redirects her energies from the pursuit of her own beautiful dreams to the destruction of those who are doing better than her at their own musical aspirations, specifically Heather Romley, a character played with predictable results by Shannon Doherty. As the failed singer turned serial killer commits her crimes, Foster's song is heard again, on the soundtrack and through the menacing tinkle of a music box, to remind us—and her—of that pivotal moment of musical failure that led her down this dark path.
For Foster scholars, the song's uncredited appearance in the film is nothing short of bizarre. What is an 1864 parlor ballad doing in a low-budget made-for-TV thriller? Yet this is only one of hundreds of instances [End Page 373] of movies, television shows, commercials, and cartoons that have integrated Foster music into their scores and into the musical activity of their characters. How did Foster's music come to be so heavily represented in cinema and TV? What is it about the songs that make them such worthy utility players in motion-picture soundtracks? This article will seek to analyze some of the many reasons why Foster's music is integrated into film and television scores and what thematic impact those choices may have for the viewing audience.
Foster's music has had remarkable staying power, never really falling out of the public's consciousness even as we forgot the name of the composer who wrote them. His works were included in songbooks throughout the late nineteenth century and became part of the touring repertoire of popular acts like Jenny Lind and, much later, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Almost fifty years after his death, his songs were heavily represented in Heart Songs Dear to the American People, a 1909 anthology that consisted of songs nominated by 25,000 readers of National Magazine.2 Foster's tunes were among the first recorded on Edison's cylinders (1902-16) and received a boost in popularity during the 1940 ASCAP radio strike, when both "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Old Folks at Home" [or "Way Down Upon the Swanee River"] received frequent radio play thanks to being in the public domain.3 With each new musical genre, Foster's music has been reshaped and rearranged, regaining popularity as vaudeville hits, jazz standards, big band tunes and, eventually, rock and country and western songs. So it should come as no surprise that songs that continued to be popular in recorded and print media should also infiltrate film and television. But while it's easy to understand why a composer might reach back into America's musical history for inspiration, why would a filmmaker choose to do the same thing?
The most obvious motive for a composer to utilize Foster's music is simple economics: Foster's music entered the public domain in the nineteenth century, meaning that Foster's original arrangements could be used royalty-free. Because of that, his songs became a natural well to draw from when a director was looking for a song for a character to whistle, hum, sing, or play on the harmonica. Also, his music has entered our folk culture, becoming part of the shared experience of those who may be watching a film. Because so many of his songs have been passed down to us through oral tradition...