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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beautiful Dreamer

(Moonlight by Winslow Homer, 1836-1910, American artist)

Stephen Foster (1826-1864) has been called America’s first songwriter. Many of his compositions are like folk songs — they could have been created around the campfire by anonymous composers. And they were very popular. A friend said, “They seemed to travel like the wind from city to city and one had hardly heard them in Pittsburgh when they were being whistled on the streets of New York.”

Foster wrote two kinds of songs. The first were more public, the “stage songs” written for minstrel groups who performed in black face, with some lyrics that derisively mimicked the speech of blacks in language that was “trashy and really offensive,” as Foster once said. These reflected the sad and unfortunate mores of the time, of ante-bellum mid-nineteenth century America. Today, we sing only the cleaned-up verses of songs like Oh! Susanna.

But Foster did change and his songs do show us that. My Old Kentucky Home, for example, was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published several months earlier, the story of the unbearable separation of a slave family. Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, admired the sentiments of this song, for “they awaken the sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.”

Foster is also known for a second kind of song, the quieter “household songs” written for the piano in the parlor. The melodies are simple and wistful, even melancholy. One critic has observed that many of these sentimental songs feature heroines, like Gentle Annie, Cora Dean, and Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, who are either asleep or dead.
Nelly Was a Lady, about the death of a black boatman’s wife, became notable because it was the first popular song to treat an African-American woman with dignity and humanity.

The song below is one of Foster’s best known. It speaks of “the wild Lorelei,” an allusion to a German folktale about the siren song of a lovely mermaid who lures sailors to their watery doom in the Rhine River.

My favorite version is this one by Raul Malo.


Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away!
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng,
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chanting the wild Lorelei;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.
Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

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