Friday, August 27, 2010

Stephen Foster, America's First Popular Songwriter

I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, we tell about Stephen Foster, America's first popular professional songwriter.


You may have heard the old traditional American songs "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home. " But, do you know who wrote them? Stephen Foster. He wrote those and more than two hundred other songs during the eighteen forties and eighteen fifties.

His best songs have become part of America's cultural history. They have become American folk songs. Many PEOPLE IN AMERICA learned to sing these songs when they were children. Most Americans can sing these songs today.

Stephen Collins Foster was born on July fourth, eighteen twenty-six in what is now part of the city of Pittsburgh, in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania. He was the ninth child of William and Eliza Foster. He did not have much musical training. But he had a great natural ability for music. He taught himself to play several musical instruments. He could play any music just by listening to it.

Stephen Foster began writing songs when he was fourteen. In eighteen forty-seven, he wrote his first successful song, "Oh! Susanna. "

Ken Emerson wrote a book about Stephen Foster. It is called “Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. ” Mr. Emerson says "Oh! Susanna" was the first internationally popular song written by an American that everyone can still recognize and sing today.


Stephen Foster married Jane McDowell in eighteen fifty. He wrote many new songs. Some of them were about love. One of the best known is "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair. " He wrote it for his wife when they were separated.


Stephen Foster wrote almost thirty songs for minstrel shows. Minstrel shows became popular in the United States in the eighteen forties. White entertainers blackened their faces and performed as if they were black entertainers. Minstrel shows included music, dance and comedy. The shows were performed in almost every major American city, especially in the Northeast. One of Foster's songs written for minstrel shows is "Camptown Races. " Today, it is a popular song for children.


Minstrel songs described the culture of black American slaves in the southern states. Yet Foster did not really know anything about this subject. He lived in Pittsburgh for most of his life. He visited the South only once.

However, some experts say Foster's minstrel songs showed he did understand how black people in the South lived before the Civil War. The people in Foster's songs love their families and work hard. Now, however, some of his songs are judged insulting to African-Americans. So, music publishers have changed some of the words. And a few of his songs are no longer sung.

In eighteen fifty, Foster made an agreement with the leader of a successful minstrel group, E. P. Christy. The agreement meant that Christy's Minstrels had the right to perform every new song Foster wrote. Foster also permitted Christy to name himself as the writer of the song "Old Folks at Home. " This became one of most successful songs written by Stephen Foster. It became the official song of the state of Florida in nineteen thirty-five. It also is known as "Way Down upon the Swanee River. "


Stephen Foster wrote other songs about home and memories of times past. In his book, Ken Emerson says Foster wrote songs about home in part because he almost never lived in one home for long. His father lost all his money when Stephen was a boy. So Stephen was forced to live with many different family members. Although Foster lived in the North, some of his songs suggest a desire to be back home in the American South.

"My Old Kentucky Home" is an example. Mr. Emerson says Foster wrote the song in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." "My Old Kentucky Home" expresses great sympathy for enslaved African-Americans. The black anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass praised the song. It later became the official song of the state of Kentucky.


Stephen Foster was America's first full-time professional songwriter. He was a good songwriter. But he was a poor businessman. He sold many of his most famous songs for very little money. He was not able to support his wife and daughter.

In eighteen sixty, he moved to New York City. His songs were not as popular as they had been. His marriage had ended. He had no money. For most of his life, he drank large amounts of alcohol. He died on January thirteenth, eighteen sixty-four. He was only thirty-seven years old.

Stephen Foster was honored in several ways after his death. He was the first musician to be nominated to the Hall of Fame for great Americans. And he was the first American composer whose complete works were published together. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, people in Pittsburgh gather to remember Stephen Foster. They go to the church he attended as a child. They attend a show that honors him. Then they visit his burial place.

The end of Stephen Foster's life was sad. But his songs have brought happiness to many people. One of his last songs was one of the most beautiful. It is called "Beautiful Dreamer. "


This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

America's Popular Songwriter: Cole Porter, Part One

This is Faith Lapidus. And this is Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the life and music of American songwriter Cole Porter.

(MUSIC: "Begin the Beguine")

That was "Begin the Beguine" played by Artie Shaw's orchestra in nineteen thirty-eight.

It is one of almost one thousand songs Cole Porter wrote. In his seventy-three years, more than five hundred of those songs were published. Porter wrote most of his songs in the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. Yet they remain as fresh as when he wrote them.

Cole Porter’s songs are still being sung and played today. They are performed at musical theaters, jazz clubs, even rock-and-roll concerts. A movie about his life, called “De-Lovely,” was released in two thousand four. Kevin Kline stars in the movie as Cole Porter. Ashley Judd plays his wife, Linda Porter. Popular young performers of today sing his songs in the movie. We will play some songs from that movie later in this program.

Cole Porter was born June ninth, eighteen ninety-one, in the middle western state of Indiana. His family was wealthy and educated. His mother, Kate, guided him to music at an early age. He wrote his first song at the age of ten.

As a young man, he was sent east to study at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In his extra time, he continued to write songs. Two were for the university: the "Yale Bulldog" song and "Bingo Eli Yale." They are still sung there today.

After finishing his studies at Yale, Cole Porter went to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to study law. That plan lasted only a year. At a party one night, he played some of his songs for the students and professors. The head of the law school spoke to him. "Why are you studying law?” he asked. "You are no good at it. Why don't you go to Harvard's Music School and then write for the musical theater?" Later, Porter said: "That idea had never entered my head before. "

At the time, musical theater was extremely popular in America. This is because there were few music records. And radio programs were still being developed. So, songwriters had to work in the musical theater to be successful. Cole Porter wrote his first musical show in nineteen sixteen. He was still a student at Harvard. The show was called "See America First." It was produced in the Broadway theater area of New York City.

The show was a complete failure. Porter wanted to leave town until people forgot it. So, he went to Europe. He stayed there for most of the next thirteen years.

During this time, Cole Porter became famous for his parties. His guests were wealthy, pleasure-loving people from all over Europe. They liked him because he was smart and funny and knew how to enjoy life. And they loved his songs, which he played at his parties. Here Cole Porter sings his song, “You’re the Top.”


You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louver Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!

In France, Cole Porter met the woman who became his wife. She was a beautiful and rich American named Linda Lee Thomas. They were married in nineteen nineteen. The Porters gave parties that lasted for days. They had so much money they could do anything they wanted. And they did. Their life together was a search for excitement, adventure and pleasure.

Still, Cole Porter remained a serious, hard-working songwriter. He wrote both the words and the music for his songs. The words and music always fit together perfectly. His songs were funny, sexy and intelligent. They were playful -- full of little jokes and hidden meanings.

One of his earliest big hits is called "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." It was written in nineteen twenty-eight for a show called "Paris.” Alanis Morrissette sings the song in the movie about Cole Porter called “De-Lovely.”

(MUSIC: "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)")

birds do it, bees do it
even educated fleas do it
let's do it, let's fall in love
in spain, the best upper sets do it
lithuanians and letts do it
let's do it, let's fall in love

the dutch in old amsterdam do it
not to mention the finns
folks in siam do it
think of siamese twins

some argentines, without means, do it
people say, in boston, even beans do it
let's do it, let's fall in love

Some of Porter's friends thought he might not be a success. One friend, Elsa Maxwell, told him: "You are too good. The humor and poetry of your words are far beyond the people. One day, however," she added, "you will bring the public up to your own level. Then the world will be yours."

Most of Cole Porter's songs are about love and desire. When they were written, they stretched the limits of what was socially acceptable. The words were often unexpected, sometimes even shocking. They spoke both directly and indirectly about sex, about drug use. Some songs he sang only for his friends.

Critics consider "Love for Sale" to be one of Porter's finest songs. He wrote it in nineteen thirty for a Broadway musical called "The New Yorkers." For years, the song was banned on American radio. Here is a new version by Vivian Green.

(MUSIC: "Love for Sale")

Love for sale,
Appetising young love for sale.
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who's prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale

Many of Porter's songs were written in a minor musical key. This gives them a feeling of sadness and longing. Yet they also can have a feeling of great excitement. American songwriter Alan J. Lerner said only Cole Porter could really "write" passion. One example is "Night and Day." It is considered perhaps the finest song Cole Porter ever wrote. It is about the kind of romantic love that is almost a form of insanity.

Porter got the idea for the song while traveling in Morocco. He heard drums and a man singing a prayer. The song has a sound that beats endlessly, over and over. It is like a lover who thinks of nothing but his love, over and over, night and day.

The song "Night and Day" was introduced in a nineteen thirty-two Broadway musical comedy called "The Gay Divorcee." The great dancer and singer Fred Astaire played the leading male character and sang the song.

"Night and Day" became famous around the world. And Cole Porter was becoming one of the greatest songwriters America had ever produced. Today there are many recordings of the song by different singers and musicians. Here is “Night and Day” from the movie about Cole Porter called “De-Lovely.” John Barrowman and Kevin Kline sing it.

(MUSIC: “Night and Day”)

On our program next week, we will tell more about Cole Porter’s life, and bring you more of his music.

(MUSIC: "Begin the Beguine")

This program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis. This is Faith Lapidus. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom
when the jungle shadows fall
like the tick,tick, tock of the stately clock
as it stands against the wall
like the drip, drip drip of the rain drops
when the summer showers through
a voice within me keeps repeating
you, you, you

Night and day you are the one
only you beneath the moon or under the sun
whether near to me or far it's no matter darling
where you are
I think of you
night and day, day and night
why is it so that this longing for you
follows where ever I go
in the roaring traffic's boom, in the silence of my lonely room
I think of you
night and day, night and day
under the hide of me , there's an oh such a hungry yearning burning
inside of me
and this torment won't be through
'till you let me spend my life making love to you
day and night, night and day.

Cole Porter, Part Two