DOO-DAH! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson

DOO-DAH! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Emerson gives readers a marvelous social and historical context in which to consider 19th-century America's most popular songwriter. Race is the primary issue of Doo-Dah!, and Emerson (a former editor of the New York Times Magazine) does not shy away from stating plainly that as a young man Foster was a proslavery racist who wrote minstrel songs in a grotesque approximation of black English. However, Emerson points out, Foster ""was among the first white boys to do what white boys . . . have been doing ever since--mimicking black music, or what they think is black music and black style."" As a result of living in Pittsburgh--a main hub on the Underground Railroad--and being exposed to the ideas of people like militant abolitionist and first black US Army major Martin Delany and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Foster became able to consider blacks as human beings and not simply the butt of jokes. Emerson admits, ""There's no evidence that . . . Foster actually encountered Delany,"" but there is no question that the abolitionist's presence was felt all over the nation, and his presence in this book serves as a strong historical marker. Similarly, repeated references to the British Romantic poets and to Victorian novelists, like minstrelsy fan Charles Dickens, serve as the cultural backdrop for Foster's synthesis of European and African-American styles. Foster became a begrudging Unionist during the Civil War, though his problems with alcohol often caused him to lapse into his old racist ways, and he died at age 37, in New York City, a literal Bowery bum. This is perhaps the only way in which Foster's career matches that of Elvis Presley or Kurt Cobain, who are among the 20th-century musicians to whom Emerson compares Foster. But this is the only serious fault in an otherwise fine work of cultural history.

Pub Date: May 7th, 1997
ISBN: 0306808528
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster