I am naturally a fairly upbeat person – I’m not too hard to please, I look forward to lots of things, and for the most part my glass is always half-full, not half-empty. Off and on through my adult life I’ve written down things that make me happy, kind of a celebration of a good life. On the list have been such simple things as Jerry’s mustache and the smell of night blooming jasmine.
Most of you know that country-western music would never be on my list of things that make me happy. But if it’s music like this, you’ll find it very close to the top.
I am not sure just how younger people today are exposed to Stephen Foster’s music, or if they even are. When I was a kid it was through the school system. We had music books in our desks, and a couple times a week we would get out our books and have a time of singing. Sometimes there was a piano in the room and the teacher played the piano to accompany us. Sometimes it was a small little pump organ. Other times we just sang a cappella. The one thing we could count on was singing at least one Stephen Foster song. We sang “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and of course, “Oh, Susannah.” We sang them in each grade – first to sixth – by which time we had them memorized.
We did not know at that time, nor did society much care at that time, that they had pretty racist lyrics. This music came out of a very unsettled period in our history, and out of a minstrel tradition. However, they all, even the songs with now-offensive words, sing of the sanctity of family, the comfort of friends and family as one grows old, and other deeply felt human values. So as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the trend has been to rewrite the lyrics to the song, tossing out the offending words and putting more acceptable words in their place. This satisfies some; others simply remember what the songs originally said, and meant, and refuse to be a part of it.
About the only times I ever hear these songs any more are when I go to do genealogical research in Salt Lake City and sit in on the noon organ concert at the Mormon Tabernacle. In the thirty-minute program, which always rests and restores me for another session in the Family History Library, the organist plays his or her own arrangement of a Stephen Foster tune. While I love all the music that is played, it is this tiny little piece that touches my soul the most. And I think about what a loss it is to be deprived of these beautiful American tunes. Doing away with the words I understand. But I have to admit I can’t hear the tunes without hearing those awful words rattling around in my head.
We are being politically correct in what we do with these songs. We are being sensitive to our fellow human beings who probably still have some residual words rattling around in their heads. But I do have to laugh when on one of the websites I saw, a person make a case for rejecting “political correctness” when it comes to Stephen Foster songs and says “Nothing is more insensitive than me being forced to listen to vulgar RAP music!”
I personally don’t think there is much of a case for rejecting political correctness in this instance, but I certainly agree with this person’s position on RAP music!