2009: 134. Doo-Dah!

“On July 24, 1826, smoke smudged the green, leafy heights of Coal Hill, the steep ridge overlooking Pittsburgh from the opposite, southern bank of the muddy Monongahela River.”

Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, Ken Emerson

      I read this as part of my resolution to read five books about music this year (my original goal was five books about classical music, but I downsized my ambition).  I thought it would be interesting to know more about the man who wrote “Camptown Ladies” “Oh Susannah” “The Old Folks At Home”, et. al., the kind of songs that don’t seem like they even have authors, but rather as if they’ve always been there.  I did learn something (like most of these songs were written to be performed by minstral shows, and as such, many, such as in particular, Oh Susannah* are appallingly racist).  However, I was extremely disappointed by the book.  There is nothing that I enjoy more than a biography of a random person like this - ideally the book will not only teach me about a forgotten historical figure, but somewhat illuminate the times in which they lived.  Emerson tries to do this, but fails.  First of all, Foster’s life isn’t really interesting enough to sustain an entire biography.  He died young, he didn’t leave much information behind, and other than write songs he didn’t do much, such that the book largely contains chapters like “he wrote this song.  Then he wrote that song.  Then he drank himself to death.”  Emerson tries to weave contemporary history, but it seems forced, and even his is forced to conclude that there is little if any evidence that Foster had any thing to do with the issues he writes about, or any interest in his times.  Morever, Emerson keeps making analogies from Foster’s music to modern music that are extremely far fetched.  I understand that he wants to make Foster relevant for the modern reader, but trying to compare say, James Taylor’s “Going to Carolina” to “My Old Kentucky Home” is just too much of a reach.**

       The best part of the book is where Emerson deconstructs the famous songs, and tries to really examine what they’re about and what made them catch on to national consciousness.  Alas, there is not enough of this sort of writing to sustain the story, and I was left thinking, “why on earth did I ever chose to read a Stephen Foster biography?”.  A disappointment.

*There is a second verse that we never sing, all about how a black person gets electrocuted.  Nice.

** To be perfectly clear, Emerson compares some Foster song to some James Taylor song, and I cannot remember which one exactly - and I have returned the book to the library.  I do remember finding it an extraordinary reach on Emerson’s part.


Date/Place Completed: December 2009; D.C.

Categories: Non-Fiction; Book Resolutions

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017