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  • Foster's Songs in Old-Time String Band and Bluegrass Music
  • Joe Weed (bio)

In 2000, I produced an album of sixteen of Foster's tunes performed in traditional old-time string band and bluegrass styles, genres in which Foster's music has remained vibrant. The trajectories of some of the tunes I included on the album demonstrate their long-lasting appeal to subsequent generations.

First, a couple of caveats. This article comes from a professional musician and producer, not a trained musicologist or music historian. Second, my experience is with late nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century American traditional string band, folk, bluegrass, new acoustic, and other related forms of vernacular music. Clearly, Foster has had a significant influence on many other genres as well. But in this short article, I focus on those with which I'm most familiar. State songs, as well as the echoes of Foster's "Swanee" on subsequent songwriters from Tin Pan Alley through the 1940s, provide additional examples of Foster's long-lasting impact on American music. [End Page 389]

The Fossil Record

When I assembled the tunes for a CD I produced, Swanee—The Music of Stephen Foster (2000), I made medleys of a few Foster songs with what I call "fossil" tunes, pieces that have been adopted by oral-tradition musicians and altered over many generations since their original nineteenth-century publication.1 The differences between Foster's published versions and the versions performed by old-time and bluegrass musicians today illustrate changes in language use, harmony, and melody that have occurred over geographic, cultural, and temporal distances. Sometimes even the names have been changed.

"Angelina Baker" (1850) might be a good place to begin, due to its ubiquity in the fiddle repertoire.2 It was written in black dialect early in Foster's career when he was writing for the minstrel stage. In Foster's account book for 1857 he lists a total of $16.87 in royalties for "Angelina," far less than many other songs.3 But shorn of its lyrics, it has lasted into the twenty-first century. Most American fiddlers whom I have met play the tune, often calling it "Angeline the Baker." It is common at jam sessions and dances around the country, and it frequently shows up on recordings. Some who play in the southeastern mountain style known among musicians as "old timey" play the tune and sing "Angeline the Baker" repeatedly as they play the tune's "B" part. I have often been met with disbelief when telling people that the tune was originally a Stephen Foster composition.4

While "Angelina's" twentieth- and twenty-first-century versions have maintained a fairly close semblance to Foster's original tune, a bit more sleuthing is needed to follow the evolution of his sentimental "Gentle Annie" (1856), in which the singer laments the death of a beautiful young woman.5 In 1930 A. P. Carter copyrighted a medium-tempo ballad that he entitled "When the Springtime Comes Again," clearly a reworking of "Gentle Annie." In the liner notes to The Carter Family: When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland, bluegrass specialist Charles Wolfe wrote that Sara Carter learned the words to the tune from a neighbor's "ballet" (lyric sheet) and had known the tune as "Little Annie."6 The song has become common in the bluegrass repertoire, where it is known as "Little Annie." Sharing the same basic melody as "Gentle Annie," the tempo of "Springtime"/"Little Annie" is generally medium-up, and the subject is no longer the death of a young maiden but the hope for her reappearance "when the springtime comes again."

Bluegrass musicians the Lilly Brothers, originally from Virginia and then Massachusetts, likely heard the Carter Family's version and recorded it themselves for an LP with Don Stover in 1961.7 The Arkansas native and later West Coast bluegrass pioneer Vern Williams played it frequently at festivals, naming the Lilly Brothers as his source for the tune.8 He included it (along with "Oh! Susannah," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Black Joe," and "Old Folks at Home") on his band's album [End Page 390] Bluegrass from the Gold Country.9...


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