March 2005

Various Artists - Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
American Roots Publishing 591694-2
Format: CD
Released: 2004

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

This first CD release by American Roots Publishing, a nonprofit organization that accepts tax-deductible donations, is a highly ambitious undertaking -- and a successful one, having just won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Throughout the recording boom of recent generations, which bore us all on a journey of no return from parlor gatherings and old standards, Stephen Foster’s best-known songs have played peek-a-boo, popping up in albums by musicians who knew better than to let Foster die. I was struck by James Taylor’s inventive "Oh! Susanna" on the Sweet Baby James LP -- and decades later Taylor's version of "Hard Times Come Again No More" on a 2000 Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor CD. And the Front Porch String Band’s rendition of that one, so different from Taylor’s. And "Old Folks at Home" and "Camptown Races" on Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads Volume 3.

One of the most affecting tracks on Songs of …is Judith Edelman’s delicate rendition of "No One To Love." Accompanying herself on the piano with block chords and single notes, she keeps a solid grip on this soulful tune even as the arrangement builds dramatically, adding Gawain Mathews’ electric guitar, Matt Mangano’s bass, and Pasi Peppikangas’s drums and subtle cymbal touches.

Another great track is "Slumber My Darling" sung by Alison Krauss, taken straight from the above-mentioned disc by Ma et al. Keenly balancing restraint and musicality, the arrangement provides strings that keep Krauss’s voice barely afloat. Her vocals are so gentle as to be scarcely audible at times -- she croons as if truly singing someone to sleep. The plain yet distinctive melody is a singer’s dream, and Krauss really runs with it, but on tiptoe.

Fans of folk music and John Prine will like his handling of "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight," with Prine’s skilled guitar finger-picking, aided by catchy rhythms generated by Dave Ferguson on bass and Jack Clement and Pat McLaughlin on rhythm guitar. Ferguson also plays Dobro, and McLaughlin picks the mandolin and sings harmony. Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson do a bang-up "Oh! Susanna," The Duhks a fine "Camptown Races," and Roger McGuinn a pretty "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," which provides a home for his trademark 12-string guitar.

As an animal advocate who’s glad only two of our 50 states have yet to outlaw cockfighting, I might find "Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai" -- about a breed of gamecock -- the only track about which to complain. It just reflects the earlier time in which Foster lived (born Fourth of July, 1826) rather than advising today’s blood-sport gambler. The kinky arrangement by BR5-49, who brought a gong to the studio for the purpose, is amusing and raunchy.

Producers Steve Fishelle and David Macias and executive producer Tamara Saviano went all out to corral small ensembles well suited to each song. Rather than pigeonhole Foster as having one style suited to one kind of singer or band, their approach brings out each song’s special dynamic and flavor, as well as Foster’s versatility and abiding interest in the human heart. This disc is a fine musical document and sure-fire keeper.