Today is the anniversary of American song writer Stephen Foster’s death in 1864. Two of his songs ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’, more commonly known as ‘Swanee River’, are recognised as official state songs for Kentucky and Florida.
His songs were part of my childhood. Dick, my stepfather, brought a dowry with him when he married my widowed mother, his gramophone and a large collection of records. There was a motley of melodies. Dick had a good tenor voice and there were records of Caruso and John McCormack. Milking the house cow if relaxed and happy Dick would sing such favourites as ‘Home on the Range’, ‘Santa Lucia’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’.
There were many records of English and Scottish comic songs, Gracie Fields and Will Fyfe spring to mind. There were Straus waltzes. But Dick’s first choice to sing was usually the Foster songs, ‘Oh Susanna’, 'Campdown Races', ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’. The melodies and words are imprinted in my soul, or proably more accurately my mind.
On my first visit to the USA my then wife and I stayed with farming friends of her parents in Indiana. They assumed being New Zealanders we’d be interested in horse-racing so they drove us down to Kentucky. We didn’t argue. That lush blue-grass landscape was striking. They took us to see both the famous Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run and the recently finished statue of Man of War the District’s most brilliant racehorse. On the way we called at New Harmony where the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen attempted to establish a utopian community. Theolgian Paul Tillich’s heart is buried there.
But the highlight was a visit to My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown. The park consists of a former plantation owned by the Rowan family. The striking old mansion was built Federal style. The guide during our visit wore crinolines and a bonnet of the Civil War period. Tradition has it that Forster a distant relation wrote the famous song there during a visit in the 1850s. Unlikely, but like most legends the stuff of dreams. But the setting gave us a glimpse of a vanished way of life – ‘Gone with the Wind’ as reality.
Forster, a Northerner, only visited the South once. He never ever saw the Swanee River he made famous. He opposed slavery and claimed his songs were to supposed to arouse compassion for the Blacks. He died before the Civil War concluded.