To Listen to Stephen Foster (Music for Monday)

-Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

I’ve written about Pandora Radio before. Through Pandora, an internet service that allows you to create your own radio stations, I learned about Olabelle, now one of my All-Time Favorite Groups.

So, I was listening to an Ollabelle-heavy station on Pandora a few weeks back when I heard the unmistakable sound of Ollabelle singing a song I had never heard, “Gentle Annie,” by Stephen Foster (left). That set me on a hard search for the Ollabelle album containing that song. And there is no such thing.

It turns out that a 2005 Grammy was won by an absolutely gorgeous album of Stephen Foster music titled “Beautiful Dreamer” and put together by an enterprising group called American Roots Publishing. It offers arrangements of Foster songs by a host of contemporary artists, from Ollabelle to Roger McGuinn, formerly “Jim” McGuinn of my Truly-All-Time Favorite Group, the Byrds. You can order the Foster collection here, and I recommend that you do so.

I couldn’t find many cuts from this album on YouTube, but I thought I would share a few Stephen Foster songs anyway. Though no Catholic, Foster (1826–1864) was our first great writer of American songs. And I think you’ll agree that his concerns, though they sound dated to “sophisticated” 21st-century ears, were really our concerns.

While I couldn’t find Ollabelle singing “Gentle Annie,” YouTube has a cut of the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna, singing the tune about a loved one who has died: “Shall I nevermore behold thee?”

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Here’s one cut from the “Beautiful Dreamer” collection that did make it to YouTube, a gorgeous collaboration of singer Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, and other instrumentalists. It’s a lullaby that sings, “Pray that the angels will shield thee from harm”:

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More uptempo, here’s Johnny Cash’s version of another Foster favorite, “Camptown Races,” from the Bell Telephone Hour, videotaped only 51 years ago in 1959:

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And here’s a cut from the album—the American country band BR549 singing “Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai”—with a Krazy video accompaniment!

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Just to show how “contempo” Stephen Foster is, here’s another tune (not from the album) offered by a quartet you may have heard of.

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Finally, here’s my favorite tune from the album, though not sung by Mavis Staples, as on the CD. Here it’s sung by the McGarrigle sisters again with (among others) Kate’s son, Rufus Wainwright. It’s a song Job could have sung, “Hard Times Come Again No More”:

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