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19 September 2017


I suppose most of us play Stephen Foster songs from time to time. They are among the oldest tunes in our repertoire. Foster wrote over 200 songs - an amazing output, considering that he died at the age of only 37, and that he was largely self-taught in musical theory and instrument playing.

I am particularly fond of Beautiful Dreamer (1864) and Way Down Upon the Swanee River (1851; also known as Old Folks at Home) and I get to play them quite a lot. It is always a poignant thought that Stephen died only a few days after composing Beautiful Dreamer. He did not live to see it published and probably never heard it played by a professional musician.

Foster's tunes may seem somewhat basic, compared with the rags that were added to our repertoire fifty years later. But I believe they should not be under-estimated. He was absolutely brilliant at producing a good melody within everybody's vocal range and with enough repeated phrases to make it easy to learn. His tunes also used very simple chord progressions that made the tunes a doddle to play in those nineteenth-century homesteads, where families had to make their own entertainment and where everybody aspired to own a piano or harmonium or fiddle or accordion or banjo. Also he tended to write 32-bar tunes, using the a-a-b-a structure (four eight-bar blocks) which was to become the standard in popular songs for decades.

And all those features make his tunes very pleasant and straightforward for us to play. Have you noticed how effectively The Shotgun Jazz Band (with Tyler Thomson singing) has been playing My Old Kentucky Home in recent months?

Here's how the wonderful and generous Lasse Collin has made Beautiful Dreamer available to us on his website[ http://cjam.lassecollin.se/ ]:

You see what I mean about the simple lines of the melody and the exceptionally simple chord sequence? But it is a gem of a tune to play. And audiences still love it.

Footnote added later: I noticed that on 6 November 2017 a video was downloaded on to YouTube by RaoulDuke504 in which Tuba Skinny are seen (for the first time?) playing Beautiful Dreamer. So I'm very pleased that they too have added this song to their repertoire.