Songs of Sorrow by Stephen Foster, My Ancestor’s New York Neighbor

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How It’s New York: This is a New York story,about life in the Five Points during the 19th century.
How It’s Irish: Charles R. Hale recalls his family’s immigration story from Newry.

Larry Kirwan’s brilliant play Hard Times, currently running at The Cell Theatre in New York City, reminds me of my family’s connection to Stephen Foster.

John Hale and his family sailed into New York’s harbor aboard the Neptune on May 24, 1854, two weeks after leaving Newry, Ireland. Coming through the Narrows at dawn they would have been presented with a view of astounding beauty and grandeur. On both sides of the channel, white mansions stood among green trees and lawns and in the distance, the spires of the churches rose against the bay and the sky. But the idyllic vision my family had of America must have been quickly dashed. Their first home was at 25 Bowery, the eastern boundary of the “Five Points,” a squalid neighborhood infamous for its population density, disease, infant mortality, prostitution and crime.

I was surprised to learn that Stephen Foster, known as the “Father of American Music,” and the composer of many popular songs including, ”Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” was a neighbor of the Hales. Foster lived in a boarding house directly across the street at 30 Bowery. Foster, his wife Jane and their nine-year old daughter, Marion, had moved to New York City in 1860 in hopes of furthering Foster’s musical career; however, about a year after they’d arrived, Jane, worn out by her husband’s drinking problems, depression and economic misfortune, left him and returned with Marion to their former home and Foster’s birthplace, Pittsburgh, Penn. 

The Bowery and its surroundings were a far cry from one-hundred-fifty-years earlier when it was described by one commentator as “hillsides spread with patches of bilberries and the lowlands with strawberries.” In the mid-nineteenth century the street was lined with caravansaries, boarding houses that warehoused the poor and nightly housed thousand of thieves, the depraved, and the lonely. The neighborhood was lined with “gin mills” and “dens of vice.” It was the home for down-and-outers. Turmoil and loss was something New Yorkers dealt with on a daily basis in the early 1860s. The Civil War was dividing the country; the pastoral ideal that many held of life on the farm, particularly the Irish immigrant, was being destroyed by the gritty urban reality of their lives, and people were suffering through economic difficulties. The death of a child was the most dreaded loss and with good reason. Nearly two thirds of NYC’s total mortality at that time were children under the age of five. 

Stephen Foster knew instinctively how to blend words and music into songs that became hymns to the sorrow of the human condition. A characteristic of Foster’s sentimental songs is the emphasis on loss, which engaged the public at the deepest level. Foster’s strength as a composer lay in his gift for poignant melody; some of his simplest tunes are among his finest. Many of the songs he composed were of migration, as both native born and immigrants abandoned the tranquility of their farms for the squalor of the urban world. His songs dealt with the loss that afflicted these people, the loss of peace, home, families and children. Foster’s tear-inducing songs about dead loved ones such as “Gentle Annie” and “Where Is Thy Spirit Mary?” were written to ease the pain of the living and commemorate the dead.

These “mourning songs” were popular with people who felt that they had no choice but to become resigned to a cruel fate. Songs eased Americans through loss; bereaved parents found emotional and moral support in the songs. “Slumber My Darling,” a beautiful lullaby, was composed in 1862 by Foster, two years before his death. I don’t know if my family ever met Stephen Foster, but a few years after Foster composed that tune John and Maria Hale’s daughter Ellen died of bronchial pneumonia. She was three years old. I wonder if Maria, and any mother who suffered a fate similar to Maria’s, sang this Stephen Foster lullaby to her baby:

Slumber, my darling, thy mother is near, 
Guarding thy dreams from all terror and fear… 
 Slumber, my darling, I’ll wrap thee up warm, 
And pray that the angels will shield thee from harm.

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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts
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