“Poetry is a northern man’s dream of the South.” 

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Last of the Belles”

In the summer of 1933, Southern Agrarian poet Allen Tate and his friend Marxist literary critic Malcolm Cowley visited various Civil War landmarks in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.  After being photographed shaking hands in front of the Confederate monument in a cemetery near Fort Donelson, the two drove home singing such plantation melodies as “Old Black Joe,” “Swanee River,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”  At the end of the trip, Cowley noted somewhat sheepishly, “You know those songs we’ve been singing?  They were all written by a Pittsburgh boy.”

As recently as the 1950’s, when I attended a public elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, the songs of Stephen Collins Foster were part of the official curriculum.  I had first heard about the Swanee River years earlier when my father (who never lived in the South) gave me the first baths that I can remember.  Literary critic James Olney recalls that, when he was a schoolboy in Marathon, Iowa, 50 years ago, he and his classmates sang

over and over again, until they were deeply etched into memory, such songs as “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Oh! Susanna.” . . . There we were children not of the Cotton Belt but of the Corn Belt, required to sing every verse of a song like “Ring, Ring de Banjo.”

In 1928, the state legislature of Kentucky made Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” the official state song.  The Florida legislature did the same for “Old Folks at Home” in 1935.  In 1951, a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress declared Foster’s songs “a national expression of democracy” and Foster himself “the father of American folk music.”  Why, then, is this onetime national icon largely unknown to Americans who came of age in the 1960’s and later?

The demise of Stephen Foster’s reputation coincides with the ritualistic trashing of the Old South in American popular culture.  In “Old Black Joe,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Folks at Home” (to cite only three of Foster’s better-known songs), the South is presented as a homeland that is desirable, biracial, and lost.  As all intellectuals know, the image of home as desirable runs counter to one of the central dogmas of canonical American literature.  Thus, Foster starts out with one strike against him.  If the desirable home had been anywhere other than the South, his work probably would have been dismissed by the cultural elite as nothing more than harmless sentimental drivel.  To idealize the South, of course, adds political incorrectness to aesthetic gaucherie.  Moreover, to suggest that blacks may have felt some measure of attachment to that benighted land challenges the notion that the antebellum South was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany and that slavery was an American holocaust.

Although slavery surely did not produce contentment, the bonds of regional affection were frequently so strong that they transcended the injustice of human bondage.  As the escaped slave and prominent abolitionist Lewis Clarke observed in 1845: 

Some people are very much afraid all the slaves will run up North, if they are ever free.  But I can assure them that they will run back again if they do.  If I could have been assured of my freedom in Kentucky, then, I would have given anything in the world for the prospect of spending my life among my old acquaintances, and where I first saw the sky, and the sun rise and go down.

African repatriation has never worked because African-Americans are more American than they are African.  And, to a considerable extent, they are Southern Americans.

Like several of Foster’s other songs about the South, the tone of “Old Black Joe” is elegiac.

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay;

Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away;

Gone from this earth to a better land, I know,

I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe!”

What makes Joe convincingly human and not just a stereotype—racial or otherwise—is his ambivalent feelings about the prospect of entering Heaven.  When the voices of his departed friends beckon him, he tells them: “I’m coming, I’m coming,” but, at the same time, he asks himself: “Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain? / Why do I sigh that my friends come not again, / Grieving for forms departed long ago?”  Rather than joyously anticipating Heaven (where there will, presumably, be no racial discrimination, much less slavery), Joe keeps thinking of the more tangible pleasures of his youth: “Where are the hearts so happy and so free? / The children so dear that I held upon my knee? / Gone to the shores where my soul has longed to go.”  Because he is a man of faith, Joe proceeds confidently to future glory, but there is at least a part of him that would prefer to return to the past.  This psychological tension makes “Old Black Joe” a credible portrait of a recognizable person.  It is also a strongly antimillenarian statement.  If the memory of your real home can seem more affecting than the certainty of an ideal afterlife, how much better it must be than the chimerical hope of an earthly paradise.

Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” was inspired by the most popular American novel of the 19th century—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Both works lament the loss of a home in Kentucky.  Foster’s original audience would certainly have thought of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and some later stage versions of Stowe’s novel featured “My Old Kentucky Home,” along with several of Foster’s other songs.  This fact alone should absolve Foster of the charge of justifying—much less glorifying—slavery.  Far from being incompatible with opposition to slavery, a black man’s love of his Southern home and his Southern masters was an important feature of the most famous antislavery novel ever written.

The speaker in Foster’s song is a slave, who could very well be Uncle Tom.  Like Old Black Joe, he begins by remembering the idyllic home he has lost:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

’Tis summer, the darkies are gay;

The corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,

While the birds make music all the day.

The beauty of the natural setting is enhanced by the singer’s recollection of friends and family: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, / All merry, all happy and bright.”  These images are all the more compelling for being rendered in present tense.  Then, reality intrudes: “By’n by, hard times comes a knocking at the door, / Then my old Kentucky home, good-night.”  If we read these lines in the context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is the hard times experienced by the slaveowner that deprive the slave of his home.  Stowe and Foster both knew, however, that even a nominally free worker can lose home and family to hard times.  This was a recurrent experience in Foster’s own brief, unhappy life.  It is also the theme of his great song “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” which is probably his only composition to be viewed with favor by the commissars of political correctness.

W.C. Handy, the black bandleader who is often called the “Father of the Blues,” has written:

The well of sorrow from which Negro music is drawn is also a well of mystery.  I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow.  “My Old Kentucky Home” makes you think so, at any rate.  Something there suggests close acquaintance with my people.

Significantly, the consolation that Foster offers for this well of sorrow is neither religious nor political but aesthetic.  The chorus of his song proclaims: “Weep no more, my lady, / Oh! weep no more today! / We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home, / For the old Kentucky home far away.”

The lament in “Old Folks at Home” is for a region in Central Florida that Foster knew only as a name on a map but which became, in the alchemy of his imagination, the archetypal lost home of us all.  As such, it has been embraced not just by nostalgic Southern whites but by Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, first-generation Jewish-Americans singing in blackface of Mammy and those old cotton fields back home—with music by George Gershwin and additional lyrics by Irving Caesar.  Not surprisingly, “Old Folks at Home” has long struck a responsive chord with black listeners as well.  One of the most innovative versions of this song is Ray Charles’ “Swanee River Rock.”  (Ornette Coleman has recorded an instrumental version of “Old Black Joe.”)  A year after the release of  Charles’ recording in 1957, the highly respected jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet was joined by Buck Clayton on trumpet and Vic Dickenson on trombone in an historic concert version of “Old Folks” performed in Brussels.  Nearly 20 years earlier, a recording of “29 Modern Piano Interpretations of ‘Swanee River’” had included versions by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Claude Thornhill.  It is not surprising that black jazz artists have been able to see beyond tendentious political arguments to appreciate the emotional truth of Foster’s music.

Unlike “My Old Kentucky Home,” there is no indication of “hard times” in “Old Folks at Home.”  Instead, the plantation on the Swanee River seems to represent lost youth.  (A 20th-century poem on a similar theme, Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” speaks of youth’s “heedless ways.”)  “All up and down da whole creation, / Sadly I roam,” sings Foster’s persona, “Still longing for de old plantation, / And for de old folks at home.”  If he is bemoaning a lost Eden, the singer has no expectation of recovering that earthly paradise, much less finding a new and better one to replace it.  Foster puts the matter as follows: “All round de little farm I wandered / When I was young, / Den many happy days I squandered, / Many the songs I sung.”  In contrast to the prodigal timelessness of his youth, Foster’s persona now lives in a fallen creation: “All de world am sad and dreary, / Ebrywhere I roam, / Oh! darkies, how my heart grows weary, / Far from de old folks at home.”  If Foster has a “darky” addressing fellow “darkies” here, it is not because he is a racist but because he realizes that African-Americans are on much more intimate terms with the deep well of sorrow he is trying to express.  The response of blacks from W.C. Handy to Ray Charles would suggest that he was right.