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July 4, 2010

My favorite Stephen Foster songs on his Fourth of July birthday

There's something cool about Stephen Foster, the first great American songwriter, being born on the Fourth of July (in 1826). When I was a kid, I remember the enjoyment of playing through a Foster songbook at the piano, a wonderful hardbound book with evocative, super-nostalgic drawings for each piece. And I remember being especially drawn to a couple of ballads that weren't as much a part of the Foster hit parade as "Beautiful Dreamer" and "I Dream of Jeannie."

These two, "Gentle Annie" and "Hard Times Come Again No More," struck me so strongly, I guess, because they were so darn sad, so haunting. They seemed to me terribly personal and real; they still do.

I found some video clips of both songs featuring Anna McGarrigle and her sister, the late Kate McGarrigle, along with friends and family (including Kate's son, Rufus Wainwright, in "Hard Times"). These are remarkably touching, truthful performances that demonstrate just how richly Foster's music continues to speak to us.

I know these are downers, not the usual bright Independence Day fare, but there sure are some hard times going on right now, so I don't think the songs are out of place at all. I hope you like them. (The "Gentle Annie" clip cuts off about two seconds too soon, alas, but the damage is slight.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:06 AM | | Comments (3)


There was also a very fine recording of Foster's songs on Nonesuch some years back: Joan Morris, accompanied by William Bolcom.

A couple of years ago, there was an amazing CD that I have, "Beautiful Dreamer." It won a Grammy.

It's got Allison Krauss, John Prine, Raul Malo, Ron Sexsmith, Roger McGuinn, Suzy Bogguss, Ollabelle, Beth Nielsen Chapman and others...

During two trips to Ireland a few years ago, my wife and I were struck by how often we heard Irish musicians performing "Hard times" in the pubs. Locals in the pub often sang along as if it were a piece of Irish folk music. The song does seem to speak to the famine years very well, so it is not too surprising, I guess. It remains one of my favorite songs of all time.

Thanks for writing. I'm intrigued to learn of that song's Irish connection. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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