’Tis Summer, the Darkies Are Gay
Stephen Foster, Ethiopian Songwriter
We begin 387 miles northwest of Louisville, Kentucky, in Pittsburgh, which is 186 miles mostly west and a little north of the gentle sloped battlefield outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Chronologically, we are nearly a decade from the Confederate general Pickett’s failed charge up that slope, a failure that tipped the balance of the Civil War for the Union.
We begin in 1852. Stephen Foster’s brother owned a side-wheeler steamboat. Twenty-five-year-old Stephen, his wife, Jane, and a group of friends booked a discounted passage down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to the junction with the Mississippi and all the way to New Orleans. For more than five hundred miles each way, the passengers gazed at Kentucky’s muddy shore. The boat would have docked briefly at Louisville, and the party would have had the chance to disembark to stretch their river legs. But not much more than that.
In early 1852, Americans everywhere were thinking about Kentucky. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s just-published novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, the most talked-about piece of fiction in the young nation’s history, opened on a Kentucky “farm.” Foster doubtless heard and possibly read about the saintly Tom, sold to cover his enslaver’s speculations, who dies under the lash on a Louisiana sugar plantation just as his Kentucky master’s son arrives to buy him back and bring him “home.” Stowe was protesting the Fugitive Slave Act, which implicated the whole of the nation in upholding chattel slavery. With archetypal characters embodying pathos and ethos, and limned in Christian ethics, Stowe hoped to motivate an insufficiently incensed white electorate. She supplied her readers with white villains to blame and white heroes to claim. Consciously or not, Stowe also drew key character traits, such as Uncle Tom’s fondness for white folks and the Black child Topsy’s thickheaded haplessness, straight from the American blackface minstrel show.
In its first six weeks, the novel sold twenty thousand copies in Pittsburgh alone.
The Fosters were die-hard Democrats. They aligned politically with the slaveholding region that supplied the raw material that made the national economy hum, while Stowe stoked a controversy that threatened American peace and prosperity. But Americans had long been entertained by Black bodies and their afflictions, and in Uncle Tom, Stephen could detect echoes of his earlier minstrel works that referenced loyal Black men fond of loved ones, “masters,” and plantation homes. Uncle Tom’s Cabin undoubtedly fanned the flames of the slavery debate; it was also bound up with the economy of chattel slavery that it purported to oppose and touched off a bonanza of spin-offs—dolls, teaspoons, wallpaper. Songs, too.
Some time after the riverboat journey, Stephen composed a yearning melody in a somber adagio tempo with a lump-in-the-throat chorus. The opening lines of “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night”—revised and published in 1853 as “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!”—reproduced Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s peaceful opening scene on a Kentucky plantation. While in the novel greed and foolish speculations lead Tom’s owner into debt, Foster used shorthand with “Hard Times.” The sale of an enslaved man was in this account nobody’s fault. “De time has come when de darkeys hab to part,” Foster wrote. In the chorus, moreover, Tom’s faith in a worthier world provided relief from earthly trials:
Oh good night, good night, good night
Poor uncle Tom
Grieve not for your old Kentucky home
You’r bound for a better land
Old Uncle Tom.
“Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night” resolved the burden of Tom and all Black people like him in death. Its final verse was the end of Tom. It called no one to task and signaled the perpetual subjugation of one race of people to another:
De head must bow and de back will hab to bend,
Whereber de darkey may go;
A few more days, and de troubles all will end,
In de field wha de cotton had grow;
A few more days for to tote de weary load,
No matter, it soon will be light;
A few more days for to totter on de road,
Den poor uncle Tom good night.
Stowe was driven by outrage at a man-made system that brutalized human beings. Whereas her praying protagonist is in the prime of manhood and dies by vicious lashings, the minstrel songwriter’s version does not call on God or perform good works. Foster’s Uncle Tom is “old” and undisturbing and succumbs, as if naturally, without drama. Foster’s musical translation of Stowe’s tale captured a measure of the slave trade’s pathos, but it also presented tragedy as fate.
Stowe’s book was Stephen Foster’s catalyst, but to make sense of this song and Foster’s musical portrayal of a Black man, we must step back further, almost two decades to 1835. For several weeks running, a small audience settled at the appointed hour onto benches in a musty carriage house in a Pittsburgh alley. A gaggle of neighborhood boys began playing a tune and dancing round while nine-year-old Stevie Foster, his face sooted dark, sang his little heart out on “Long Tail Blue.” “Jim Crow is courting a brown gal, / The white folks called her Sue; / But I guess she let the nigger drop / When she see my long tail blue.” The diminutive “star performer” regaled the spectators with the ballad of a free Black dandy competing with “Jim Crow” for a woman’s sexual favors—his double-entendre secret weapon being an outrageously long tailcoat/phallus.
Jim Crow got mad and swore he’d fight,
With sword and pistol too;
But I guess I back’d the nigger out,
When he saw my long tail blue.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Now all you chaps that wants a wife, And don’t know what to do;
Just look at me and I’ll show you how
To swing your long tail blue.
The crowd grinned and hooted, for that was the point, and entertaining is how minstrel shows coaxed coin from white Americans.
The prepubescent impresario moved from “Long Tail Blue” to “Coal Black Rose” who is courted with a banjo and promises of “possum fat and hominy.” The tunes were naughty and irresistibly catchy. According to his older brother, Stephen’s performance of popular “Ethiopian” melodies was judged so “true to nature” that he won “uproarious applause.” Of course the opposite was true. Inauthenticity—silly and absurd, lampooning and derisive inauthenticity—was what drew forth the applause.
The shows went on three nights a week with the front man earning a guaranteed sum from ticket sales and the other boys dividing what was left. Feeling rich, they walked their coins downtown to the Pittsburgh Theater and bought cheap seats in the pit, where they heard (but couldn’t see) famous actors like Junius Brutus Booth hold forth. A dismissive contemporary critic tarred blackface songs as spawn of “the very lowest puddles of society.” But little Stephen Foster was hardly the spawn of society’s bottom rung. It is more accurate to say that the songs he performed were just one of the many spillways for the entertainment of white America. It is not at all surprising that a path went directly from a makeshift back-alley theater to Junius Booth performing Shakespeare on the city’s main stage to his son John Wilkes Booth murdering Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre decades later in hopes of preserving the Confederacy and slavery. This is not coincidence but ubiquity, a culture steeped in race.
Foster’s biographer Ken Emerson has suggested that Stephen and his pals sang and played in blackface “because it was popular, because it was ‘cool,’ and because it offered a freedom that white middle-class culture couldn’t furnish.” “Freedom” doesn’t seem at all apt. “License” seems more apt, in the sense that blackface afforded white performers and audiences license to express openly what white middle-class culture expressed constantly yet obliquely: the mix of superior power and fear and awe that came with thoughts of blackness. Perhaps this helps answer just why this type of entertainment, born in the 1830s, took the nation and world by storm in the 1840s and became the most significant American cultural creation up to the advent of Hollywood. The fraud of miming blackness served whites, then and ever since. The critic Saidiya Hartman has written of the way minstrelsy forged American conceptions of “blackness [that] aroused pity and fear, desire and revulsion, and terror and pleasure.” Stephen Foster soaked daily in this blackface way of seeing and acting and laughing and feeling, which denigrated Black people while it proved how fascinating, and useful, they were.
Foster’s promising 1835 debut represented his lone turn on the boards. He was too shy and his mild tenor too weak to reproduce that early theatrical success. Yet his life story, the history of popular music, and American culture itself are all inseparable from the framework set by the blackface minstrel show he imitated as a child.
Stephen was the next to last of ten children in a middle-class family whose fortunes had been sliding downward since his birth in 1826. His father, William B. Foster, invested in real estate, scrambled for political offices and appointments, and started businesses including a stagecoach company and a general store, failing more often than not. William also battled a drinking problem. At a high point in his career, Foster senior acquired land for a bucolic “White Cottage” in a suburb, now Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville district. When Stephen was three, the house was sold to pay creditors.
Financial strain hung about the Fosters like the window curtains they carried from home to home. At the time of Stephen’s brief theatrical stint, they were renters. They clung to bourgeois comforts, such as domestic servants that they could ill afford. About the time Stephen was jumping Jim Crow, the grateful family received an “excellent coloured girl” as a “present” from a friend. This indentured servant with three years remaining on her contract required no pay. (Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act permitted binding the minor children of enslaved people to indentures until they were twenty-eight years old.) She labored in an often-unhappy home.
The eldest Foster daughter, Charlotte, had a flair for music. When Stephen was three, the family learned of her untimely death during a visit to distant kin in Louisville, Kentucky, and seven months later a baby brother Jim followed Charlotte to the grave. Stephen’s mother, Eliza, suffered a breakdown, and her careworn face was forever engraved in her children’s minds. “All my gone by hopes are nothing but a dream,” Eliza wrote mournfully to another son. Before folding her letter, she added that Stephen was marching around the room with a drum and a feather in his hat “whistling old lang syne.” He was trying to cheer her up. Early on, Stephen found in music both an escape and a means of channeling loss into joyful distraction.
Prosperity and security for aging, dependent parents required gainful careers for the Foster sons and good marriages for children of both sexes. One of Stephen’s brothers courted the daughter of a Maryland planter with 250 human chattel, but the flirtation fizzled out. His elder brother William Foster Jr. became a railroad engineer and began supporting the household when Stephen was still learning to talk. The duty of the youngest son was to work hard at his lessons. But “Stephen was not,” his brother Morrison observed drily, “a methodical student.” Instead, he adored music. At seven, he picked up a recorder-like flageolet and taught himself to play “Hail, Columbia,” a patriotic march composed for George Washington’s inauguration. Stephen’s earliest surviving letter begs his father to bring home a “commic [sic] songster,” a book of blackface tunes. Patriotism and white supremacy floated through the rented rooms.
Fooling around with music was a distraction if not an impediment to Stephen’s future. Sent off to a boys’ academy in northern Pennsylvania at fourteen, he wheedled the brother who paid the tuition his parents could not afford. If “Brother William” would send money, he promised to go at his books six hours a day and give “attention to my music” only before bed. Ultimately, Stephen revolted, ran away home to Pittsburgh, studied mathematics with a tutor, and succeeded in begging for enough lessons to learn the piano and how to write musical notation. Social life interested him no more than prospecting for a career; he devoted every free hour “to musick, for which,” the father conceded, “he possesses a strange talent.”
While Stephen avoided grown-up responsibilities, his older brothers were making their way in industrializing America as striving apprentices and “practical business men.” Morrison Foster, who was three years older, worked for Hope Cotton Factory, making long buying trips to the South. Indeed, cotton was Pittsburgh’s leading industry, and he managed to get Stephen a job inspecting bales on their way from the Pittsburgh wharf, but the young man struggled to keep it.
Music offered no conceivable path forward. At the time, respectable society regarded “a young man addicted to music” as “a worthless fellow whose fate was the poor-house.” Music teachers and dancing masters were ubiquitous, usually foreign, often scapegrace drifters. If some musicians were seen as predatory, others were deemed “a sort of third or harmless sex . . . to be relieved of responsibility for thus wasting their lives, because they knew no better.”
Foster turned twenty in 1846. Finally, he agreed to keep the books for his brother Dunning at his Cincinnati wholesale mercantile brokerage. The office near the river city’s wharves negotiated purchases and arranged shipments at another swollen node of the nation’s cotton-driven economy. The labor of more than a million enslaved laborers boosted cotton to more than 60 percent of U.S. exports. The historian Edward Baptist estimated that more than half of the national economy “derived directly or indirectly from cotton.” Slavery was the goose that laid the “golden egg” of prosperity.
The brothers who supported Stephen’s education, paid his wages, and later enabled him to focus on composing music were up to their armpits in the cotton trade and its derivative commerce. He grew up amid a surging economy—“slavery’s capitalism,” the economic historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman called it. In Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Foster confronted a diurnal “blur of commodities and capital that flowed between” and crumbled distinctions between the regions. A few outspoken and committed abolitionists petitioned Congress and led boycotts, but they failed to dent the global demand for the durable, comfortable fabric, and the Fosters denounced them.
Stephen composed songs in his spare time to share with family and a few friends who gathered for amateur evening harmonies at home. In Cincinnati, Foster gravitated to the nearby music shop of W. C. Peters, who previously plied his trade in Pittsburgh and sold Stephen his first flute. Foster played on the shop’s piano, browsed the stock of sheet music, and spent his clerk’s wages. Peters was his first publisher, printing “Old Uncle Ned” in 1848 with a cover featuring a blackface minstrel troupe called the Sable Harmonists. The ode to an “ideal slave”mourned by the “massa” began in a moderate tempo:
Copyright © 2022 by Emily Bingham. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.