Sunday 12 January 2014

Stephen Foster and the "Famine Irish"

Stephen Foster died 150 years ago today. He is widely recognized as the "father of American music." He had close connections with the Famine Irish in New York City and his music was beloved by many of them.

The mere mention of Famine Irish immigration to the US summonses images of a host of brave souls descending upon Eastern seaports and within a matter of generations electing Jack Kennedy president.

            The sheer scale of human suffering and the many failures are usually glossed over. Most rural Irish immigrants had never before set foot beyond their own townslands. Hungry, filthy and depleted by scurvy and sea-sickness, they were easy prey for quayside hustlers who fleeced them of anything remotely valuable.

            Many ended up in New York’s Five Points, then the world’s most notorious slum; some of the men cracked under the unfamiliar urban pressure and retreated to pubs and shebeens, more lit out for California and the Gold Rush, leaving behind a surplus of young women.

            If the Five Points was notorious and dangerous, it was also exciting and liberating; dancehalls abounded and the strict social and religious mores of home were often ignored in a new world where the Catholic clergy was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the new arrivals.

             Despite hardship and discrimination many Irish had gained at least a foothold by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. Any spare cash for recreation was often spent on dancing  – the national pastime. In the Five Points most of the dancehalls were run by freeborn African-Americans - still some steps above the Famine Irish on the social ladder.

            I first became aware of the “amalgamation” of Irish and African-American couples in the disapproving musings of Charles Dickens on the Five Points. He was far more positive about the music the communities made together. In etchings of the time, you can see them – Irish fiddlers sawing away with African-American banjo and percussion players, while interracial couples danced what look like hornpipes and polkas.

            Such images led to the genesis of Black 47’s music. What would happen if you crossed jigs and reels with hip-hop beats? But I never forgot the joy on the dancers’ faces in those old Five Points etchings as the two peoples mixed freely and unselfconsciously.

            Stephen Foster already had a great future behind him when he arrived in New York in 1860 at the age of 33. Barely out of his teens he had become world famous with minstrel anthems like Oh Susannah and Camptown Races; but as blackface routines became coarser and more denigrating to African-Americans he had abandoned the form – and his success.

            He was determined to create a new American music un-beholden to racist cant or European tradition. He found the makings of it on the streets of the Five Points where he ingested the Babel of immigrant songs and melodies. He was no less struck by the music performed by the inter-racial bands and the tap dancing that was being created in competitions between Irish step-dancers and African-American hoofers.

            But with the Civil War raging people wanted patriotic songs, not jewels like Beautiful Dreamer. He retreated to the back room of a dilapidated Five Points saloon where he marked out piano keys on a rum-stained table and wrote songs daily.

            Like many he was appalled by the violence of the Draft Riots. Three days of rioting and lynching in July 1863 tore apart the Irish and African-American peoples – the dancehalls were shuttered and the window of integration slammed shut.

            Foster died six months later at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. For such an iconic figure relatively little is known – mostly because his brother, fearing scandal, destroyed much of his correspondence. The family line was that he was a near homeless alcoholic and yet there is a photo of him seemingly hale and hearty - with his friend, George Fox - taken shortly before his death. Foster also wrote over fifty songs in his last year, hardly the activity of a hopeless drunk. 

Tonight at The Cell Theatre we’ll commemorate the 150th anniversary of Stephen Foster’s death with a performance of Hard Times and, perhaps, uncover some of his secrets.

But Hard Times no less celebrates the Famine Irish as they descended upon New York City and reopens the window on the lives they led, the music they made, and the America they created.

Hard Times runs until Feb. 2nd at the cell theatre, 338 W. 23rd St., NYC. Tickets $18 can be purchased at where dates and times of performance can also be found.