Stephen Foster‘s seductive 1851 song “Old Folks At Home” provides a challenging introduction to the antebellum period:
On the surface, it seems to be a straightforward song about missing one’s childhood home. But consider the cultural context; performed in minstrel shows by white performers in blackface, sung in Foster’s approximation of southern slave dialect, and seeming to justify all the “happy days” the singer has spent on “de old plantation”… Why does Foster’s (fictional) singer long for a return to a state of slavery? What did this message mean to audiences in the 1850s?
This song never fails to elicit powerful reactions and response from our audiences. Foster’s best songs have this ability to bring our attention to a topic within a narrative context, and to present that topic from a human perspective — in this case in spite of all the racist caricature of the minstrel idiom.
Foster composed “Old Folks…” for Christy’s Minstrels, and for an extra fee he even sold the composition credits to E. P. Christy, whose name appears on the original sheet music cover page:
Alongside Old Folks, we might consider paintings like Eastman Johnson‘s “Negro Life at the South” (1859). What stories do you see woven into Johnson’s complex canvas?:
Like Foster’s song, Johnson’s composition may at first appear to approve of or even defend Southern slavery. Note how the central banjo player seems to draw everyone together in this “Southern idyll” (to use the words of one contemporary reviewer)… Note also that Johnson set his painting in Washington DC, which was indeed considered a Southern city in the years before the war. However, upon closer inspection (and consideration of Johnson’s own life experiences and views), other stories emerge… (See also John Davis, ~ and Urban Slavery in Washington, DC)
If we read Johnson’s painting more deeply as an indictment of a caste system based on skin color, or even as an exploration of the act of “passing” through racial lines (as the Smithsonian’s recent Civil War in American Art exhibit and its corresponding catalog book suggest) … then how might this change or deepen our reading of Foster’s lyrics?
We should also remember that “Old Folks” was (and still is) the “state song” of Florida, adopted in 1935, a full 70 years after the end of the Civil War. However, in 2008 the Florida adopted a less controversial song as the “state anthem” for use at official functions. The Florida Heritage website currently lists “Old Folks” with altered text that removes any references to plantation life.
MORE: Alma Gluck’s 1914 recording >>
ALSO: Find “Old Folks at Home” and more in Stephen Foster’s Sketchbook >>
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