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Stephen Foster: Discovering America's First Great Songwriter

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Various Artists -

Various Artists - "Songs of Stephen Foster"

Used with permission of CMA Closeup News Service
By Rob Patterson

"The songwriter is the fuel that drives the car that is the Country Music industry," said Beth Nielsen Chapman, one of the artists featured on Grammy-nominated Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster.

"If you don't put gas in the engine, the car isn't going anywhere," Chapman said.

Beautiful Dreamer, which is nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, takes listeners back to the beginning of American songwriting. Foster was America's first full-time professional tunesmith. He died 140 years ago with 38 cents in his pocket, but a rich legacy lives on in the hundreds of songs he wrote.

"I think all Americans know Stephen Foster songs," said Tamara Saviano, President of American Roots Publishing, the non-profit organization that released Beautiful Dreamer as its first project. "If you hum a few bars of 'Oh! Susanna,' 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' or 'Camptown Races,' people of all ages and all walks of life in America know the songs. But if you ask them who wrote them, most people have no idea. And that is the reason why we did this."

Saviano, a veteran music journalist, formed American Roots Publishing to issue important works of American culture neglected by the commercial market. She's betting that niche projects like the Foster tribute CD will find an audience.

The board of directors of American Roots Publishing includes actress Bobbie Eakes, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, Rider University's Chair of American Studies Jack Sullivan, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, noted music critic and author Dave Marsh, and music industry veterans Steve Fishell, Tom Frouge, Steve Garvan, Cameron Strang and Kathi Whitley.

The album features BR5-49, David Ball, Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss (accompanied by Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor), Raul Malo, John Prine and others.

"There are 18 songs on the album, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," Saviano said of Foster's catalog.

The project was suggested to Saviano by David Macias of Emergent Music Marketing, who went on to co-produce Beautiful Dreamer with Saviano and Fishell, an A&R executive at Sugar Hill Records. Saviano was surprised when she confirmed that a contemporary collection of Foster songs hadn't already been released.

Dale Cockrell, Professor of Musicology and American and Southern Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and an expert in 19th Century American music, agreed that a Foster tribute album was overdue.

"If you took all of the notes performed, and you counted them up and divvied them up by composer, Stephen Foster would be the most performed musician in the history of humankind," Cockrell said. "It's not just an American phenomenon. ... I've heard Stephen Foster sung in Russian, in Zulu, in Japanese. I was once giving a lecture on Stephen Foster to a group of Chinese scholars who were visiting the United States, and I punched the tape player and 'Oh! Susanna' came on and they all started singing along."

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