Beautiful Dreamer: The Roots and Future of Americana
The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra is breaking ground this month with a new concert program that delves into the roots of American music. Nestled on the banks of the Ohio River at the crossroads of North and South and along vital trade routes, Cincinnati enjoys a unique vantage point of the traditions and genres that have shaped our culture over the decades. To mark the occasion of some of the greatest folk songwriters of our time gathering together on Music Hall’s stage with the Pops—not to mention the recording of the Pops’ first-ever live album—Fanfare Cincinnati spoke with some of these phenomenal guest artists about performing with the Pops, Cincinnati’s role in American music-making and the papa of Americana himself, Stephen Foster.
Over the Rhine
What sparked your interest in the “American Originals” project with the Cincinnati Pops? What songwriter would turn down an opportunity to play with an accomplished full orchestra? Not us. Playing with the Cincinnati Pops has been a dream of ours for many years. And then of course we’re thrilled at the other artists involved: Joe Henry has produced our last few studio albums, and we’ve had the privilege of doing some writing and collaborating with Joe. Dom Flemons shared the stage with us for some of our holiday concerts this past December. And of course, we’re huge fans of Rosanne Cash, a fine songwriter, deeply dedicated to her craft. Her fine memoir, Composed, was an important book for us.
How has the music of Stephen Foster shaped the American musical landscape? In many ways, we’ve seen Stephen Foster as the father of modern American songwriting. Songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Hard Times” have haunted our musical landscape for years. Sometimes when sitting at the piano, we try to imagine Stephen Foster having a musical conversation with another more modern musician. We’ve certainly felt echoes of his writing in several of our songs over the years.
Stephen Foster has Cincinnati ties, and, like you, wrote many of his earliest tunes in Cincinnati. What is it about Cincinnati that seems so conducive to fantastic songwriting? What a thrill to know he lived and wrote in Cincinnati for a time. And to learn that Hank Williams recorded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” a few blocks south of the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. And of course there’s the legacy of King Records, and some of the great Cincinnati radio stations. I suppose it’s a bit of a mystery, but we’re an old river town, lots of history flowing through, we didn’t tear down all our old buildings, thankfully. We remain an ethnically diverse city. Good music needs deep roots; I think Cincinnati has those roots.
What sparked your interest in the “American Originals” project? When I first received the call for the concert I knew I had to be involved. The line-up and the material for the concert, the songs of Stephen Foster, piqued my interest. Also after talking with the conductor, John Morris Russell, on the phone, I am excited to get a chance to interpret these old songs and perform them in a new way.
How has the music of Stephen Foster shaped the American musical landscape? Has preparing for “American Originals” affected your own music-making? Stephen Foster’s songs come from a time when the United States was still looking for its own national music and theater entertainment. While downplayed for its overt racism, the blackface minstrel show was the first all-American variety show to sweep the nation. When one of the biggest troupes, the Christy Minstrels, needed material, Stephen Foster was there writing songs that have now been woven into the fabric of American popular music. He was Tin Pan Alley before that song publishing community existed.
Although I have been aware of many of Stephen Foster’s songs, this will be my first time performing any of the songs in the United States. As these songs were made for the blackface minstrel show, I have needed to use a little bit of ingenuity to both honor the original material while keeping modern sensibilities intact so that no one gets the wrong idea. As a performer of African-American descent it cannot be done any other way. Yet as the material holds racially driven ideas, the songs are also excellent displays of 19th-century sentimental song, which was the other genre that the minstrel show publicized so well during its peak years after the Civil War.
How has the music of Stephen Foster shaped the American musical landscape? Foster is one of those seminal characters whose influence so shaped the base architecture of American music that even those unaware of its shadow find themselves changed by it.
Have you performed and/or recorded with a full orchestra live before? What are you most looking forward to about this performance and recording with the Pops? I have never before had the opportunity to perform with a full orchestra, and have longed to; I very much look forward to striking a balance between the broad expanse of such instrumentation and the intimacy of the material.
The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars
What inspires or contributes to the All-Stars’ songwriting or performing style? How would you characterize that style? We play a number of so-called “covers,” songs written and popularized by others. The reason for this is that songs that are truly great, songs that move the listeners, and songs that strike a deep chord in our human nature deserve to be played.
Cincinnati is an exceptionally musical town, as evidenced by Foster’s own musical roots here