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Christy's Minstrels and Stephen Foster

Old folks at home : Suwanee River route to Florida

Foster, Stephen Collins. Old Folks at Home: Suwanee River Route to Florida. [S.l.: s.n., 189-?]

Apparently inspired by the Virginia Minstrels, singer Edwin P. Christy and his stepson George formed Christy’s Minstrels in 1844. The group had a long and fruitful career, with Edwin retiring in 1855 and George performing until his death in 1868. Part of the secret to their success was their chief songwriter Stephen Foster, who had been impressed by Thomas Rice’s “Jim Crow” act as a child. He later sent Rice several of his original compositions in hopes that he would play them. 

Stephen Foster helped modernize the music of minstrelsy by mining contemporary musical arrangements for inspiration instead of relying on older dance songs such as jigs and reels. Even as his music was populist, his lyrics were safe for the white middle class, stripped of the sexually and politically suggestive material common among other songwriters.  His classic “Oh! Susanna” borrowed from a contemporary polka rhythm. Foster wrote many comic pieces, including the enduring “Gwine to Run All Night or De Camptown Races.” 

The enlarged minstrel shows of the 1840s and 50s tended to alternate between comic and sentimental songs, and Foster was a master of all styles. Foster’s most popular sentimental song was undoubtedly “Old Folks at Home: An Ethiopian Melody.”  In this classic, Foster draws from Irish melodies while retaining the vernacular inspired by African Americans.  In this song as well as his “My Old Kentucky Home,” Foster appeals to listeners’ longing for an ideal rural life, one of the central subjects of minstrelsy.

Old black Joe

Foster, Stephen Collins. Old Black Joe. New York (547 Broadway & 39 Union Square, New York): Wm. A. Pond & Co., c1860.