The day after tomorrow is going to be a tough one for many Americans. Our mood is not celebratory. The remaining patriots are on the defensive, embittered at recent riotous events. Opponents have become enemies and are at each other’s throats. Old Glory will still be flying, as if in defiance instead of celebration. At the extremes, Antifa banners and Confederate colors will face off. At this Saturday’s family picnics, politics, culture, religion, and pretty much any other serious subject will all best be kept in the closet. Stick to Coronavirus or the weather (whoops, that’s political now, too). No baseball, either. Some Fourth.
With talk so dangerous, perhaps we should turn instead to song. I think not of Hamilton and other such modish offerings, but of vintage tunes, perhaps untried for a while but worth dusting off and trying again now. Warning: this is material suitable for adult audiences. I use that adjective in the old sense: grown-ups, old or young, grateful for the day in front of them and unburdened by grievance. Compared to today’s cultural figures, two of American history’s most prolific songwriters, Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan, would seem to hail from another planet, which is a good enough reason as any for dusting them off this Fourth.
Stephen Foster happened actually to have been born on July 4, the jubilee Fourth in fact: 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the year when both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. A child of antebellum America, Foster died in 1864, when the losses were still piling up from the war to save the Union and when the fate of the nation had still not yet been assured. Biographers tell us that Foster’s was not a particularly happy life (he may have died from alcoholism), and his descendents went to some lengths to scrub the record of the most embarrassing elements.
Foster’s association with minstrelsy and so-called “plantation songs” made him an embarrassment to post–Civil Rights Movement Americans. Although long venerated in concert halls and parlor rooms across the country, he became an easy target in the age of political correctness. Sensible scholarship exists that tries to balance things out and explain, for instance, why it was that minstrelsy so appealed to mid-nineteenth-century American audiences, and why it was that mid-nineteenth-century American women were so drawn to “parlor songs” that made them weep. Those two markets combined were huge, and Foster, whatever he may have believed about race relations or the role of women, had a talent for supplying them, and the songs he left behind became part of the American canon.
Foster had considerable talent for music but never much formal training. He was a skilled songwriter but not a great composer. The songs were short, sentimental, and easy for a generation that had only heard music “live” to hum along to or pick out on the banjo or fiddle. Foster went “professional” in the 1850s (though he foreswore most of his royalties in 1860 and never got rich), and by the time of his early death tallied up close to two hundred songs. He wrote most of his own lyrics too. Some were potboilers, but some were destined to impress themselves immortally on the American ear: “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” (the anthem of the California Gold Rush), “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home” (still that commonwealth’s official song), “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and the matchless “Old Folks at Home,” aka “Swanee River” (think Ray Charles “Swanee River Rock” from 1957, or Judy Garland belting it out at Carnegie Hall in 1961).
George M. Cohan came a few generations later, lived longer (1878–1942), and had a more varied career than Foster, as an actor and producer as well as a songwriter. But he touched the same chord. As master of the great American patriotic songbook, he had and has no equal. He came out of vaudeville (from age eight, the junior member of the family act “The Four Cohans”) and so, too, was guilty of minstrelsy, but somehow (thus far anyway) without catastrophic effect to his posthumous reputation. Perhaps this is because his greatest work was such straight-up fun, unlike Foster’s, which, with its pronounced motif of loss, could be very sad. He had some three hundred songs to his credit, and even without the music the titles tell their story: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and the most popular song of World War I, “Over There.” With Sam Harris, he produced over fifty Broadway musicals and revues before 1920. In the 1930s he honed his acting talents, in Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness! and as a charming FDR in the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical I’d Rather Be Right.
Most Americans today probably channel Cohan through James Cagney, who played Cohan in the classic movie of his life story, Yankee Doodle Dandy, from 1942. That film, which won Cagney an Oscar for Best Actor, came out just in time for Cohan to see it in a private screening before he died. Cohan reportedly thought Cagney was terrific—and so have we all ever since. 1942 was not America’s best year, and with the boys “over there,” the upbeat tale of Cohan’s life could not have been timed better as a morale booster on the homefront. The balance of the battle had not yet tipped to the Allies, and one look at the map, with the Japanese at the gates of India and the Germans still hammering east, indicated it was going to be a long and costly war. Music as balm for weary and anxious souls in times of national distress need not aspire to the level of Dame Myra Hess interpreting Bach at the National Gallery during the Blitz; the recently deceased Vera Lynn will do very nicely as well. George Cohan wasn’t George Gershwin either, but he didn’t need to be. Nor, back in 1864, another dark year for the forces of light, when Lincoln expected not to be reelected and when the Confederacy, though objectively beaten, wouldn’t quit, did Stephen Foster need to be Schubert. Foster and Cohan were both in a different business: the business of popular song. Very good popular song for sure, not the debased sort all too familiar to us today, but compact, well-crafted, singable melodies with lyrics with a noble, yes, moral, message.
A lot of Americans this Fourth are feeling about as grim as our fathers and grandmothers did back in 1942. Is it the grimness of depression or determination? That Fourth, our elders knew what they were fighting for, however awful that fight looked to be. This Fourth, we are less sure, which is not, as they say, a good place to be. Best perhaps though, just for one day, not to overthink. Just say it in song. Print off some Foster or Cohan lyrics (you know the tunes) and give it a go around the grill. Compared to our national anthem, they practically sing themselves. And you don’t have to be Judy Garland or Ray Charles either.