The Stephen Foster ABC Fakebook


Stephen Foster is amazing. Some of his tunes are so ubiquitous and pervasive, you don't even realize they are songs that someone wrote, they're just part of the American cultural fabric. On top of that, they're beautiful. How many things can claim to be both ubiquitous and beautiful? Coca-Cola is ubiquitous, but you wouldn't call it beautiful. Cole Porter's songs are beautiful, but he's far from ubiquitous. Stephen Foster's songs are both beautiful and ubiquitous, and nobody knows who he is!

So this site was born with two goals in mind:

  1. To give me a Stephen Foster Fakebook. I wanted to play some Stephen Foster tunes, I like the fakebook style, and I couldn't find any Stephen Foster in fakebook style.
  2. To promote the knowledge, love, and acceptance of Stephen Foster in the world at large by giving everybody else a Stephen Foster Fakebook.

Each one of these songs you probably already know, but you won't know you know until you hear it. Some of the ones, like Old Uncle Ned, you might not know, but were once a lot more famous than they are now. (In "Little House in the Big Woods", there's a scene where Pa takes down his fiddle and starts to play. . . "Old Uncle Ned".)

The Tunes:

Pick your key and click on a format.

Ah, May the Red Rose Live Alway: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear
Angelina Baker: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Over the years this has metamorphosed into "Angeline the Baker," with a slightly different melody, and become part of the fiddle tune repertoire.
Beautiful Dreamer: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Often incorrectly described as the last song Foster wrote. Beaten to death a couple decades ago, it's ripe for a comeback.
Camptown Races: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear See Blazing Saddles.
Gentle Annie: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Hear it here.
Hard Times Come Again No More: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear What more can you say?
If You've Only Got A Moustache: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Ok, this comic song you've probably never heard, but if you've ever read "Harris Sings A Comic Song" you'll appreciate it.
In The Eyes Abide the Heart: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Foster didn't write this one, but he did a nice translation. I don't have the written source for this one, so don't consider this a canonical version.
Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Barbara Eden, "I Dream of Jeannie", can anybody say "collective subconscious"?
Massa's In De Cold Ground: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Tough lyrics on this one
My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear I first became familiar with this through the Randy Newman song My Old Kentucky Home. The lyrics were revised by the State of Kentucky in 1986, but I figure they're allowed.
Nelly Bly: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear I first learned this tune from the Kitchen Musician, but see also "Nellie Bly: Pioneer Woman Investigative Journalist" , a famous woman writer who took her pen name from this song.
Oh! Susanna: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Became the theme some for the Forty-Niners bound for the California gold fields.
Old Black Joe: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear
Old Dog Tray: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear My wife used to have a serving tray with a picture of a dog on it, her roommate called it "the old dog tray." My wife didn't know why until I played her the song.
Old Folks At Home: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear Of course you've never heard of "Old Folks at Home," but I bet you've heard of "Way down upon the Swanee River." Bonus points if you know the connection with Ed Norton.
Old Uncle Ned: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear In "Little House in the Big Woods" there's a scene where Pa takes down his fiddle and starts to play. . . "Old Uncle Ned".
We Are Coming, Father Abraam, 300,000 More: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear
Why, No One to Love?: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear
Willie We Have Missed You: abc pdf jpg midi See&Hear The midi of this is particularly abominable, especially if you've heard Grey DeLisle's haunting version.

More tunes may follow as I get the time to enter them, someday.

Jaypegs and midis and stuff, oh my!

What are all these three-letter acronym links on this page?

ABC is a portable, human readable format for writing down music. It's very handy, easy to learn and use, and is supported by a ton of free software and shareware. If you're into music and you don't know about it, you should.
Stands for "Portable Document Format", readable by the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click on 'pdf' to get nice, printable sheet music. These PDF files were created by abcm2ps and Ghostscript
An image of the sheet music. You can use this if for some reason PDF doesn't work for you. To zoom in and make the images larger, try clicking on them--the zoom behavior depends on your browser. Also created by abcm2ps and Ghostscript.
"MIDI" stands for Music Instrument Digital Interface. Clicking on the "midi" link in one of the tunes should make music come out of your computer. If it doesn't then give that friend of yours who knows computers a call.
I know mediocre midi is an abomination in the eyes of God (Calliope, anyway), and hardly qualifies to be called "music", but these midis might be helpful to those who don't read sheet so good. I find them helpful when trying to find the right range to sing a tune in.


The problem with Stephen Foster songs is that he was writing in the 1850's, when slavery was a big part of the American culture, and a lot of his songs were written for the minstrel shows, where white performers would dress up in blackface and adopt a goofy sentimentality the audiences associated with the black population of the southern plantations. The slave's life on the plantation was portrayed as idyllic and childlike in its innocence. Recent developments have shown this not to have been the case.

So lyrics in songs like "Massa's In The Cold Ground" about how sad the slaves were that their owner had just died, or "Old Uncle Ned" about that nice old slave who'd worked so hard all his life and how sad we are that he's gone, become difficult to enjoy for anybody with sensibilities more refined than a cinderblock, indeed are positively objectionable, and at the very least have entirely different connotations today than they did in 1860. They can entirely obscure the great melody. I mean the sentiment was sweet (if maudlin), but the context and the assumptions are just unsupportable.

And then you have the songs that are otherwise benign, but he just has to drop in a reference to "darkies". "Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)" has it in the chorus, for crying out loud. What do you do with that?

Now I'm not any kind of a prude. I know Violent Femmes songs by heart ("Words memorize, words hypnotize, words make my mouth exercise, But words all fail the magic prize--There's nothing I can say when I'm in your thighs"), I've tapped my toes to Dead Kennedys tunes like "Too Drunk To Fuck" or "Let's Lynch the Landlord", and I think the old Walls of Genius tune "Everybody's Fucking" makes a great anthem. But the sentimental slavery thing just bugs the crap out of me; while the old Anglo-Saxon word "fuck" is one of my favorites, I recoil at the thought of saying "n-----r". This is my website, and I'm just not going to print any verses that offend me. If you want to start a "Celebration of Slavery in the 1850's" website, then you're more than welcome.

At some point I may add a "View Objectionable Lyrics" button, but it's not going to happen today.

So don't look for this to be some authoritative, scholarly source for Steven Foster, I'm only printing as much of the lyrics as I feel like typing at the time. The occasional "darky" reference I'm just going to leave in (although see this), I'm not going to bowdlerize him, and there is such a thing as being too sensitive.

How did you do all this?

If I have accomplished great things, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. --Isaac Newton

Actually, I did very little, but re-used a lot of very handy things. Here is a list of references and inspirations:

Can I Have One, Too?

Well, sure, kid. The ludicrously tiny collection of scripts that generates this site is available right here. It's under the GPL, too. Help yourself. Once your site is up all you have to do is copy .abc files into the abc-src directory and everything else takes care of itself.

Your comments are welcome: April 2004