Review: The Sons of the Pioneers – Sing the Stephen Foster Songbook (Varese Sarabande, 2010)
It’s a mark of Stephen Foster’s seminal place in American culture that the two songs opening this collection, “Oh Susanna” and “De Camptown Races,” are known more as part of the musical landscape than a particular songwriter’s creation. But those two, along with “Old Black Joe” and “Swanee River” are indeed part of Foster’s catalog of American musical classics. “Oh Susanna” was his first commercially successful composition, and though written in Cincinnati, it became emblematic of the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. Within five years he’d written many of his most memorable songs. But in an era of limited copyright, Foster barely profited from his songwriting, and by the early 1860s he was living in poverty in New York City, finally passing away in 1864. But his songs lived on, burnishing his reputation as one of the first truly American songwriters.
The Sons of the Pioneers came together in 1933, at a time that Foster’s songs were gaining renewed recognition. Kentucky adopted “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1928, and Florida adopted “Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River”) in 1935. Though the Sons of the Pioneers are more typically recognized for their close harmony Western songs, they included Foster’s works in their Americana songbook right from the start. The 1934 and 1935 performances collected here include lead vocals from all three of the group’s founding members, Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, as well as an instrumental version of “Swanee River” featuring fiddler Hugh Farr. The tracks from 1935 also include guitarist Karl Farr.
Foster’s occasional use of racial slang may have been acceptable in the 1850s or 1930s, but it will stick out to contemporary listeners. The performance of Foster’s songs by minstrel acts and the later repurposing of his lyrics by post-Reconstructionists further magnified the offense felt today; listeners may strain to take the dialect and epithets in the context of their times. These recordings are drawn from transcription recordings that the Sons of the Pioneers made for radio broadcast, and have not been widely available in the intervening decades. This is a treasure trove for fans of Stephen Foster as well as Sons of the Pioneers fans who want to hear their original harmony sounds.