On the utterly fictional, vaguely uncomfortable, and unquestionably compelling homes created by the father of American music.
I’m not sure how many 21st century Americans know his name, but I’d guarantee that most of us can still sing (or at least hum) along to one or more of the melodies composed by Stephen Foster (1826-1864). Maybe the silly but mournful “Oh! Susanna” remains the most popular; perhaps it’s the upbeat excitement of “Camptown Races”; or the tender, idealized love of “Beautiful Dreamer.” It’s likely in any case that the specific contexts for these tunes have been almost entirely lost; I doubt many who sing the first two, for example, know that they began as minstrel songs, with their lyrics written in the dialect of African American slaves in the antebellum era (or at least Foster’s approximation of the same). And that same two-sided point, popularity on the one hand yet complex and uncomfortable contexts on the other, extends doubly to Foster’s two most formally sanctioned songs: “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.”
I call those two songs formally sanctioned because each is still, more than 150 years after its composition, an official state song: “Old Folks,” with its nostalgic embrace of life upon Florida’s “Sewanee river,” has been Florida’s official state song since 1935; while “Kentucky,” obviously, serves as that state’s official state song. I call their contexts complex and uncomfortable partly because both were also composed as minstrel songs in slave dialect, with lyrics that have had to be revised in recent years in order to ameliorate controversy and protest: the African American speaker of “Old Folks” finds himself “still longing for de old plantation”; while the second line of “Kentucky” establishes our setting as “summer, [when] the darkies are gay.” But perhaps even more strange is that the nostalgia of each song is entirely fictional, both in their specifics and in their overarching preference for Southern life; Foster was born in Pennsylvania, lived in New York for most of his tragically brief life, and never set foot in either Kentucky or Florida (he only visited the South once, on a steamboat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans).
In terms of American cultural and literary history, Foster’s nostalgic embrace of a South he had never known foreshadowed the local color movement known as the plantation tradition, many of the practitioners of which were likewise northerners. But I would also say that it’s worth engaging more broadly with this kind of communal, created nostalgia: a constructed yet still compelling embrace of homes that never actually existed yet that exercise a significant hold on our national imagination nonetheless. How much of what we mean by “America,” in our narratives and images and popular usage, depends on a similar kind of communal, created nostalgia? And while partly that idea can be a divisive one—connected for example to what the Tea Partiers mean by “I want my country back”—I believe that it’s also a unifying and shared concept, and that even recent immigrants can and do often embrace this kind of constructed image of our communal “home.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong that—not if it can help create a unified national community—but at the very least, it’s worth asking what about such constructed images of home appeals to us so much; wondering why, that is, we still sing along to those songs.
Next home connections tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to these ideas? Other images and ideas of home in America you’d highlight?
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