Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster [Emergent, 2004]
Foster presaged rock and roll--"Oh! Susanna" was his "Louie Louie"--but rock and roll barely knows he existed. Except for John Prine drawling "My Old Kentucky Home" in gravelly tones no minstrel troupe would have stood for, the only fast one that does justice to Foster's uptempo mode is BR549's clog-stepped "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai," about a Chinese fighting cock who decreased the songwriter's whiskey intake. Oh well--no point lamenting the rhythm sections of Nashville roots fanciers, and anyway, like most pop tunesmiths Foster was what the word says, a melody man first. As a result, normally snoozeworthy schoolteachers like Judith Edelman, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and David Ball, who does his level best to help us forget that "Old Folks at Home" ever had anything to do with darkies, fit the bill on this worthy effort to reclaim the master for the American vernacular. Inauthentically quaint here (a santour, a toumbak, and an armonica pop up, and once Foster's antiquity is signified by a now extinct guitar not yet invented when he was alive) and anachronistically subtle there (before the microphone, even parlor singers pro-jec-ted), it nevertheless feels more or less the way one suspects Foster must have. Special kudos to Henry Kaiser and Mavis Staples for making their weirdness and grit blend right in. A-