Stephen Foster and retroactive morality legislation

Are we still allowed to listen to "Old Folks at Home?"

I try not to get too caught up in cancel culture nonsense. This is not because I think the crisis is overblown - I think it’s essentially the death of civilized society, quite frankly - but because it’s just impossibly annoying and needlessly raises my blood pressure. It does make me grateful to be a nobody, because if I were anybody at all, I’d have gone through it myself.

The most disgusting aspect of cancel culture is the retroactive legislation of morality, judging the past on the standards of the present. This is a psychosis that licenses people to tear down statues of George Washington based on his having owned slaves and encourages Ryan Reynolds to apologize for having had his wedding on a former plantation. I suppose now is as good a time as any for me to state unequivocally that I think slavery is wrong. Now that I’ve established my virtuous bona fides, let’s continue.

My personal favorite of these idiotic controversies happened a couple years ago when the New York Yankees banned the playing of Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” and the Philadelphia Flyers removed a statue of Smith that had been erected outside their arena in 2011 because they “learned that several of the songs Kate Smith performed in the 1930s include lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization and evoke painful and unacceptable themes.” I’d like to point out that it isn’t as if these songs were impossible to know about prior to erecting a statue of her, like their very existence had been eradicated from the record of human experience. At any rate, the song that got Smith in trouble was “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” and it’s as cringe-inducing as you think it is. It’s worth noting, however, that there were a couple other popular performances of the song circulating at the same time as Smith’s, one by Mildred Bailey and another by Paul Robeson. It’s almost, ALMOST, as if the values of our society in 1931 are incompatible with the values of our society today.

I had a slightly heated argument with a friend once about what our attitudes would be about slavery if we were growing up in Kentucky in the 1830’s and 1840’s. My friend insisted that it was possible to have stood for what is morally right, which, to be clear, is what we know NOW to be right. I agreed but said that the rectitude needed to actually do so isn’t exactly in abundance. If it were, Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t stand out as the national hero that he is, and even he has some positions on things that today read as, let’s say, pretty complicated. My assumption is that, if I were in that time and place, my attitude about slavery and the races generally would look pretty repugnant to 2021 me. The flip side of this same coin is, of course, pondering what the folks living in 2150 will judge us for as they look back in disgust at our era.

This brings us to Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter, architect of arguably the first bit of mass popular culture to conquer the country, one of the world’s greatest songwriters and, most importantly for our purposes in this paragraph, guy who was alive in the United States in the first half of the 1800s. Blackface minstrelsy was a thing and so was “plantation” dialect, two pretty repulsive artistic trends that look unbearably bad from our vantage point today. Take the original lyrics to “Old Folks at Home,” one of Foster’s masterpieces:

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!

All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I;
Oh, take me to my kind old mudder!
Dere let me live and die.

One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.
When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

Not great, Bob!

There have been some efforts to try and give Foster some credit for being less racist than this type of lyrics obviously is. From a Smithsonian Magazine article about “My Old Kentucky Home” comes this passage:

“Though not an abolitionist himself, Foster might be looked upon as a “fellow traveler.” According to musicologist Susan Key, Foster “took a number of steps to mitigate the offensive caricatures of blacks, including depicting blacks as real, suffering human beings, dropping grotesque cartoons from the covers of his minstrel songs, and softening and then eliminating the use of plantation dialect.”

Good luck getting those of us here in America to understand a point that nuanced. Most of the time the discourse is more like this:

Foster’s songs have become part of America’s cultural bedrock. “My Old Kentucky Home,” a very beautiful parlor melody with a lyric about a slave’s nostalgia for the plantation he can never leave, is the state song of Kentucky.

“Old Folks at Home,” another very beautiful melody, with a lyric in which a slave is “longin’ for the old plantation,” is the state song of Florida.

The aforementioned Smithsonian Magazine article goes into depth about the lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and I urge you to read it. Even so, saying that these two state songs romanticize plantation life is a much easier sell than coming to terms with the fact that your great great grandparents were racist.

I went to college at the University of Kentucky, and as part of my scholarship I had to play in the marching band. At the end of every home game we’d traipse out of the stands and onto the field of Commonwealth Stadium to perform “My Old Kentucky Home,” fans in the stands singing the (thankfully modified) lyrics, the members of the football team locked arm in arm singing as well. It was quite a lovely thing, a communal act of which I continue to have fond memories even though marching band is a scourge which should be brutally repressed and ultimately extinguished.

At the end of the day, this turns out to be yet another in the long line of “can I love the art and not the artist?” things that basically applies to every artist who ever lived. As I mentioned in the first post on this site, my first musical love was Wagner, so I got used to answering that question pretty early. I think Stephen Foster is a pretty important figure in our nation’s history and that his music should continue to be kept alive, even if we acknowledge that there are elements of it that are deplorable. The key is having the humility to recognize that you’re a God damned idiot and if you were to put yourself out there creatively, a century from now someone is going to hate you, too.

This lesson applies to Foster, to Wagner, to George Washington, to anybody. Have some humility, it’ll make your life richer and more interesting and it doesn’t cost you any of your principles!