Emerson: “Doo-Dah!” (1997)

Ken Emerson bring’s Foster’s triumphs and failings to dramatic, sentimental, heartrending life, with loads of context and creative analysis:

1997-Emerson-Doo-Dah! (706x1024)DOO-DAH! Stephen Foster
and the
Rise of American Popular Culture”

(Ken Emerson, 1997)

From the book’s blurb:

Stephen Foster was America’s first great songwriter. The composer of classics such as “Oh! Susanna, ” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, ” “Beautiful Dreamer, ” “My Old Kentucky Home, ” “Old Folks at Home” (“Way down upon the Swanee River”), and “Camptown Races” (“Doo-dah! Doo-dah!”), Foster virtually invented popular music as we recognize it to this day. Yet by his death in 1864, at the early age of thirty-seven, he was all but forgotten. In the first biography of Foster in more than sixty years, Ken Emers makes the man as well as his music come alive. Foster’s life was riddled with contradictions. Although his songs celebrated the rural South, he scarcely set foot there, spending most of his life in Pittsburgh, the smoky cradle of America’s industrial revolution. He won fame by writing blackface minstrel songs, doing what white boys from Irving Berlin to Elvis Presley to Michael Bolton have been doing ever since: mimicking black music. Yet the best of his songs transcended burnt-cork caricature and expressed a profound sympathy for African Americans that even Frederick Douglass applauded. Foster’s yearning for respectability drove him to write genteel love songs, but these ballads were belied by his own broken marriage. Unable to equal the success of his earlier hits, he died a nearly penniless alcoholic on the Bowery. “Doo-Dah!” evokes not only Foster’s songs but the wide-ranging music of his era, from high opera to low dives, and it looks ahead to the ragtime, rock, and rap of our own century.”

From Margo Jefferson’s “Beautiful Dreamer” in the New York Times Review of Books:

EMERSON continually compares minstrelsy to rock-and-roll, and he’s right to, though he names too many names along the way (Elvis, the Beach Boys, Berry Gordy, John Lennon, the Beastie Boys). He is also right (and more precise) when he shows how quickly certain stylistic and commercial pop conventions were codified: the sexual segregation of the marketplace, for instance, into male performers and female consumers; the struggle between the music people loved and the music they respected; the nasty racial and ethnic conflicts side by side with canny racial and ethnic collaborations.

SEE ALSO: Our posted Stephen Foster songs >>

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