Current pop artist Ryan Schleicher contemplates Stephen Foster’s legacy.
Photo by Kat Schleicher
Ryan Schleicher thinks you should know about the world’s first pop star.
For much of that star’s brief life, his music could be heard in almost every house in America. His songs reached millions. And many of them are still familiar today – cue one up at your neighborhood bar, and plenty of people will surely chime in.
Following the rock-star golden rule, he lived hard and died young, spending his last years in a seedy Manhattan hotel, exhausting what was left of his wealth on booze. When he was pronounced dead in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital at age 37, they found 38 cents in his pocket, along with a note that read, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”
As you might guess from this sign-off, the world’s first pop star was not a rockabilly legend, a misunderstood bebop pioneer or a vaudeville tunesmith from the 1930s. The world’s first pop star was Stephen Collins Foster, composer of “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.”
“Everybody knows Stephen Foster’s songs,” says Schleicher, appropriately sipping Kentucky bourbon at a bar near his Riverwest home. “But nobody knows a lot about him.”
Schleicher isn’t a historian or scholar, but a pop star in his own right, the bassist in local band Juniper Tar. For the last year, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about Stephen Foster – his life, his songs and his place in the American cultural landscape.
But it’s not an obsession. “I’ve always been interested in the development of American music,” Schleicher explains, “and I knew enough about Foster to have a conversation about [him].” That was before he had a drink with David Ravel, director of Alverno Presents, who thought Schleicher could bring something interesting to Foster’s legacy. Thus was born, over several free-wheeling conversations, Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project.
“Foster was the first one to sell his music on a national scale,” Schleicher says. “And his sheet music was part of a common culture in America. That seems to be gone now, which is one of the reasons Foster is interesting.”
This became one of the ideas Schleicher and Ravel batted around for months: Now that America has been fractured and balkanized by Internet tribalism and ever-more-fractured media, the very idea of “popular” culture is gone. In Schleicher’s opinion, “popular culture started in America with Stephen Foster and ended with Michael Jackson,” citing one of the ideas Ravel brought to their conversations. “Jackson was the last person that everyone in America knew about and could talk about. And when he died…”
Schleicher trails off, perhaps anticipating the most challenging part of the project, but the one that he also finds the most interesting: “The racial component.”
“When Foster was writing, the most popular songs of the time were used in minstrel shows,” says Schleicher, referencing the blackface tradition that continued well into the mid-20th century.
Schleicher wants the show to “speak to America’s racial history” but he wants to go beyond the obvious, that “minstrelsy was offensive and stupid and wrong.” The history of American music, after all, was driven by the mingling – and push-pull – of black and white musical traditions. In its own offensive way, Schleicher says, “minstrelsy was the only way whites could approach and perform black music. It allowed white and black cultures to interact with each other and evolve for a time.”
But Schleicher understands that The Foster Project isn’t a history lecture. “I want the music to carry the night, but we are trying to say something.”
From Field Report’s Chris Porterfield to Chicago soul singer Bethany Thomas to Ohio rapper Blueprint, the evening will say it with the help of several perspectives and veteran Midwestern musicians. The key, he says, is to reinterpret and reimagine Foster’s work, and then respond to his legacy. That means there will be both original songs and modernized versions of Foster originals. “We’ll take what we find most fascinating about those songs,” Schleicher says, “tear out those elements, and put them into rock ’n’ roll settings.”
Without question, it will not be your great-great-grandfather’s Stephen Foster. “I didn’t want it to be an old-timey show,” he says. “I didn’t want it to conform to the stereotype of Foster’s era – banjo and bluegrass and stomping feet. I want this to be a genuine reimagining of his work.”
Go: Beautiful Dream: The Foster Project
(Feb. 2). Alverno College. Pitman Theatre. 3134 S. 38th St., 414-382-6044, alvernopresents.alverno.edu