Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sounds of America Gallery (formerly known as Stephen Foster House, Stephen Foster Birthplace and Stephen Foster Memorial)

(I must apologize to the readers of this blog. For some reason I over-looked this building while putting this blog together. When I am able to afford an actual site, it will surely be placed in its rightful order)

From what I understand, this structure, built in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, in 1830, was purchased by Henry Ford in 1934 and placed inside Greenfield Village a year later. It was during this time when Ford was truly providing a safe 'haven' for the country's historic houses as many, including what was thought to be Stephen Foster's birthplace, were in terrible shape or were in dilapidated areas. Houses like this probably would not have lasted another decade where they originally stood.

The large hallway that separates the house in two. This is facing the front door.

Stephen Foster was probably the foremost composer of popular music of the 19th century. His tunes, including "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home (aka Way Down Upon the Swanee River)," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Hard Times Come Again No More" and so many others were the soundtrack of the mid-Victorian era, much as the songs of Lennon and McCartney from The Beatles were to the 1960's generation.
Interestingly, just as with the Susquehanna House in later years, this structure's history and how it came to the Village is quite a story (the following is from the book "The Public Image of Henry Ford - An American Folk Hero and His Company" by David Lewis):
In 1934, Ford bought a house in which Stephen Collins Foster allegedly had lived. As the industrialist was preparing to move the dwelling to Dearborn, the mayor of Pittsburgh declared that Ford had bought the wrong house. His statement was seconded by Foster's biographer, John Tasker Howard, who, while conceding the land on which the house stood was owned by Foster's father, pointed out that there was "little documentary evidence" to support the claim that the homestead was ever occupied by Stephen Foster himself. Ford's agents, the biographer suggested "had been misled and failed to exercise due caution in examining evidence" (which consisted mostly of the recollections of elderly Pittsburghers who, themselves, could only repeat what their parents had told them about the house). To judge for himself, Ford, who perhaps was pleased with the furor, made two well-publicized trips to Pittsburgh, expressed his faith in the house, and ordered it removed to Dearborn. On July 4, 1935, the house - in the presence of 70 of Foster's descendants - was formally added to the Greenfield Village collection. One of Foster's granddaughters lit "a perpetual monument of fire" in a stove inside the house and a sign, "The Birthplace of Stephen Foster," was hung above the front door."
The book goes on to say that after Ford's death the trustees of Greenfield Village wanted to clear up the controversy of whether Foster was actually born in this house or not due to the insistance of other Foster relatives, so a professional historian was hired to do the determination. The historian's conclusion was that Foster's actual birthplace was torn down in 1865 and that Ford's agents either ignored or did not understand the available evidence at the time. The house, as of 1953, was then known as the Stephen Foster Memorial.

But, the controversy didn't end, and through the 1960's other historians offered their 'professional' opinions. After continued research they decided Mr. Ford and his agents were, in fact, correct and the Village, in 1971, renamed it, once again, the Stephen Foster Birthplace.
In the 1990's (as far as I can figure), after another bout of research, the historians one more time agreed that this was not the birthplace of Stephen Foster, doubting, in fact, that he ever lived in this house. But, it was on the property belonging to his father.

So, rather than just have it as a restored 'mistake,' the Village, in 2003, decided to incorporate the music and the musical instruments of the era of Stephen Foster into a house-sized showcase. It does work, as far as this goes. But, I do miss seeing it in the way Greenfield Village had it decorated: the wide hall stretching from front to back (which is still present), and the rooms set up as a home would have been during Foster's time.

However, because there is some association of this home to the famed composer - even if not necessarily accurate - I will list, in addition to the songs listed above, a number of his biggest 'hits' (as far as sheet music in the mid-19th century can be considered):
Beautiful Dreamer
O Susannah
Bring My Brother Back To Me
If You've Only Got A Moustache
Gentle Annie
Merry Merry Month of May
I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair
Nothing But A Plain Old Soldier
Nelly Bly
We Are Coming Father Abraham
Old Dog Tray
The Glendy Burke
Katy Bell
Massa's In De Cold Ground
Laura Lee
Willie Has Gone To The War
Some Folks Do
Ring De Banjo
Better Times Are Comin'

As you can see by this smidgen of what Stephen Foster wrote, his songs truly were the soundtrack of not only his generation but of future generations to come, and that has so far seen no end.
Even if this is not his birth home, Stephen Foster deserves any memorial that he receives, even under unusual circumstances.