The man in the portrait looks forlorn. His clothes are wrinkled. His lips are pursed into an expression that seems to shift momentarily between a smile and a frown. He is the author of some of our country’s most enduring songs, yet he died young, poor and alone after cracking his head on a sink. His name is Stephen Foster, and he is the father of American music.
On Saturday night at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre, Juniper Tar and the Foster Project painted their own portrait of Foster’s life (which most people probably haven’t heard about) and music (which everyone has heard, whether they know it or not). Foster’s songs – along with songs inspired by him – were reinterpreted and performed by a star-studded cast in an array of musical styles for a performance called Beautiful Dreamer, the brainchild of WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher. The caliber of the musicians and the unique arrangements made it a great concert, but the performance doubled as a history lesson that examined the complex issues surrounding Foster and his place in American pop culture. It was an eclectic, thoughtful and at times challenging performance that tackled some heavy subject matter head-on while still managing to be a lot of fun.
And boy, did it get started with a bang. Backed by Juniper Tar and a choir of local musicians, Chicago actress and singer Bethany Thomas belted a syrupy-slow, spine-tingling version of “Oh! Susannah” that set the bar high for the rest of the night. A tough act to follow, admitted Robbie Fulks, the lanky alt-country star from Chicago who nonetheless gave a charmingly shambling rendition of “Massa’s In The Cold Cold Ground,” accompanied by a tuba and trash-can percussion. The diverse first act included Juniper Tar’s Ramones-inspired performance of Foster’s “Camptown Races” and a groovy, almost indie rock version of “Virginia Belle” sung by Ohio emcee Blueprint. Aaron Schleicher and the affable John Langdon (Mekons, Waco Brothers) split a pair of tunes by folk singer Sam Baker, whose connection with Foster was not entirely clear. And Christopher Porterfield (Field Report) delivered an electrified performance of an original song about Foster’s manifold fighting fronts: his marriage, his alcoholism, the Civil War and the music industry.
While the second act was more musically uniform than the first, trending mostly toward folk rock, it also managed to be a lot weirder, fixating mainly on Foster’s untimely death in a Manhattan flophouse. It began with a hypnotic, billowing noise collage created by Aaron Schleicher that gave way to the hushed Foster lullaby “Slumber My Darling.” Langford returned to the stage to read an essay about wildebeests and sing a Handsome Family song called “Wildebeest,” meant to be a metaphor for Foster’s life. Fulks and Porterfield each played parts of Foster’s “I Would Not Die In Spring,” and Juniper Tar and Betty Strigens offered up two original songs about Foster’s last days. The set ended on a positive note with Juniper Tar’s rocked-out version of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” but blundered in passing up an opportunity to bring all the performers back on stage for one last song.
The music was the meat of Beautiful Dreamer, but the performance would not have been half of what it was without the thoughtful interludes of Ryan Schleicher, who has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about Foster’s ongoing relevance in American culture. His words not only put the music in context, but also gave the audience something to think about while listening. Schleicher touched on the issue of race in Foster’s songs, which, while they were often performed by white men in blackface, were some of the first to be written from the perspective of African-Americans. He also argued that Foster was the first “household name” in American culture, a common culture that ended, Schleicher thought, with Michael Jackson.
The portrait hung high above the stage Saturday night, staring out over the audience with that sad, boyish face, so that even when the music strayed from Foster’s own catalog, his presence was remembered, a watchful eye just beyond the shoulders of the performers. Beautiful Dreamer showed that if you listen for him, Foster can be found in nearly every form of American music; from rock to country, folk to noise, lullabies to punk. Even in his wildest dreams, could Stephen Foster have imagined that?