Many people know the melodies and some of the lyrics to songs by Stephen Foster — “O! Susannah,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Not so many know his songwriting career was tied to Cincinnati.
In the late 1840s Foster worked as a bookkeeper for his brother’s steamship company in Cincinnati, and his time in Ohio profoundly shaped the music he wrote.
“On the bustling docks of the Port of Cincinnati, he heard the music of America in folk songs, work songs and spirituals that came together at the crossroads of our continent,” said Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell.
Foster’s numerous memorable songs inspired Russell to create "American Originals," a Pops program showcasing what he calls “the unique ‘American-ness’ of those tunes.” The performances, in January, were recorded, and this month "American Originals" is being released as the Pops’ first live recording.
Russell assembled a broad array of Americana singers and musicians to join the Pops: singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash); Cincinnati’s own Over The Rhine and Comet Bluegrass All-Stars; and niche performers including folk singer Aoife O’Donovan, Dom Flemons (of the string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and singer-songwriter Joe Henry, who produced Over The Rhine’s two most recent recordings.
Foster’s melancholy “Hard Times Come Again No More” was already in the repertoire of both Over The Rhine and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars.
“John Morris Russell paid us a huge compliment when he said that our arrangement of ‘Hard Times’ planted a little bit of the seed in his mind for this concert," said Linford Detwiler, who with his wife, singer Karin Bergquist, are the core of Over The Rhine. "If we played some small part in that idea taking shape, we are incredibly happy.”
The "American Originals" recording of the song is one Over The Rhine has used for years. Detwiler loved collaborating with the Pops — “a world-class orchestra,” he said.
The same goes for Ed Cunningham, leader of the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, house band at Northside’s Comet Bar since 1996. Noting that they’ve performed Foster tunes for years, Cunningham said, “It was a thrill to work and play with this orchestra, which I consider to be one of the best in the world.”
Performing with more than 90 orchestra members posed a challenge for Cunningham and his five fellow musicians. “We don’t really read music, so we had to dig deep to make this work,” he explained. “The pressure was on us to keep up.
“When the orchestra is playing from the music in front of them, there’s only one way they’re going to go. There’s no room for the improvising we usually do.”
Russell recognized the challenges facing the bluegrass band and found ways to address them.
“We talked about how to work together,” Cunningham said. “He had us rehearse facing the orchestra, which really helped. We had monitors so we could hear the drumbeat — we needed that driving beat, a hallmark of bluegrass.”
Rich, nuanced stories
The recording featured performers not only showcasing individual skills, but mixed and matched to great result. For instance, the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” begins with O’Donovan’s slow, silvery voice backed by the Pops. After a minute or so, the All-Stars come in with an up-tempo backing and close harmony for subsequent verses, a treatment supporting the song’s joyous and celebratory message.
(“Amazing Grace” is not by Foster. Its words were written around 1770 by John Newton, an English sailor and slaver turned clergyman, and fused with the tune “New Britain” in the 1830s. It became hugely popular in the United States.)
Digging deeply into Foster’s lyrics gave everyone a profound appreciation of his talent.
“When you look at all the numerous verses of each song,” Russell said, “you discover richer, far more nuanced stories. I can never listen to ‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’ the same way. What I always thought was a gentle and innocent love song is actually a melancholy reminiscence of love lost.”
Detwiler was impressed with one of Foster’s lesser-known songs. “What surprised me was how contemporary and modern some of those old songs sound. Karin sang one I didn’t know before, ‘Why, No One to Love?’ It sounded like a Karen Carpenter song, especially with the orchestra. It was timeless with melodic sensibility. Boy, these songs just stand up so well.”
Russell is thrilled with the results, even though a live recording was “way out of our comfort zone. But it was the only way to capture the incredible electricity we all feel when performing in Music Hall with several thousand of your closest friends in attendance. We gave ourselves an immense challenge, and, because of the extraordinary skill and artistry of everyone involved, we created something bigger and better than we could have ever imagined.”
On the record
Read details of the tracks and see interviews with performers at cincinnatisymphony.org/pops/americanoriginals.
The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra has made more than 100 recordings. Of them, 55 have appeared on the Billboard charts, a record unmatched by any other orchestra.