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  • Stephen Foster and American Popular Culture
  • Ken Emerson (bio)

I wrote a biography of Stephen Foster in order to understand popular culture, and the original impetus behind it was more contemporary than historical.1 My own background was in rock 'n' roll, which I began writing about in 1968 for a sex, drugs, rock-'n'-revolution alternate newspaper in Boston that one could be arrested for peddling on the streets, which was its initial means of distribution. My very first article in Avatar was about a short-lived psychedelic band called Lothar and the Hand People, and it quoted a French singer-songwriter named Antoine whom I had come across during a summer in France. "Le seul regret de ma vie," he told a French fan magazine, "c'est de n'avoir pas été né noir." My memory and my French may have faltered over the decades, but what Antoine said translated to "The only regret of my life is that I wasn't born black."

I've always been fascinated by when and why it first became cool for white teenagers to pretend they were black. Obviously it started long before the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, Antoine, and Elvis. Benny Goodman, Mezz Mezzrow, the Austin Hill gang, and other nice Jewish boys from Chicago fell in love with black jazz and helped turn it into swing. But it went back further than the King of Swing. Irving Berlin was sometimes accused of concealing within his piano a diminutive black man, and one of his first gigs was as a singing waiter at a dive in New York City's Chinatown called Nigger Mike's. But it went back further than the King of Ragtime. (Note in passing that both Goodman and Berlin were awarded titles usurped from black men. Scott Joplin was the real [End Page 397] King of Ragtime, of course, while Fletcher Henderson and other African American bandleaders deserved the accolade Kings of Swing.)

It eventually became apparent that in order to understand when and why it became cool for white teenagers to pretend they were black, I would have to go back at least as far as the blackface minstrelsy of the 1830s and 1840s and Stephen Foster. But when I went to the library, I discovered that the last Foster biography had been written by John Tasker Howard in the 1930s and that, in the spirit of those times, when the Great Depression had justifiably provoked widespread disenchantment with the workings of the commercial marketplace, Howard honored Foster more as a folk poet—America's Troubadour, his title proclaimed—than as a pop songwriter, the nation's first full-time professional secular composer. "He wrote for a market," Howard acknowledged while expressing disdain for that market, "but when he wrote at his best, the market never soiled his work."2 If I was going to learn more about Foster, especially about his contribution to popular music and culture, I would have to write the book myself. By the time I met John Tasker Howard's daughter and learned that Howard had written his book while living practically next door to me in suburban New Jersey and that it (the book, not New Jersey) had driven him to a nervous breakdown and nearly to bankruptcy, it was too late to turn back.

But if what originally drew me to Foster was his relevance to racial issues in popular culture generally and rock 'n' roll in particular, I soon recognized that Foster's music encompasses far more. To be sure, one can draw a straight line from George Washington Dixon's rendition of "Zip Coon" ("O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day") to Foster's "Camptown Races" ("Doo-dah! doo-dah! . . . Oh! doo-dah-day!"), and thence to Johnny Mercer's and later Phil Spector's renditions of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," to the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."3 The "colored girls" who sing "Doo-doo-doo" in Reed's song are Foster's camptown ladies 122 years later, although Reed's chorines, unlike Foster's, may be drag queens. Be it minstrelsy...


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