University of Pittsburgh
April 8, 2001



Sharon Blake


Cell: 412-277-6926

PITTSBURGH, April 9 -- "Stephen Foster," the PBS "American Experience" series episode to air on WQED-TV on Sunday, April 22, from 9 – 10 p.m. (EST), is the result of four years of painstaking research at the University of Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster Memorial. The first major film documentary on the legendary songwriter in 50 years, "Stephen Foster" chronicles the life of Foster, from his 1820s boyhood in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, to his days as America's first professional songwriter in New York City, where he died at the age of 37. The piece was co-produced by WGBH-TV in Boston and WITF-TV in Harrisburg.

WITF-TV producers Beth Hager and Randall MacLowry worked closely with Deane Root, curator of the Foster Hall Collection at Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial. "We opened some doors for them to places they wanted to film," Root said. "We suggested actors, other resource sites, took them to Allegheny Cemetery where Foster is buried, and showed them much of the Foster collection."

Root oversees the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Stephen Foster materials – a massive assortment of manuscripts, photos, first editions of sheet music, rare books, letters, and personal possessions of the composer, including Foster's flute, a sketchbook, and the small billfold he was carrying when he died. Foster's music, including classics such as "Oh, Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Way Down Upon the Swanee River," and "Old Folks at Home," continue to enjoy enormous worldwide popularity years after the songwriter's death.

Root is pleased especially about the lengths to which the producers went to make the film authentic, and to explore the meaning behind Foster's music. "They took pains to get a sense of Foster's milieu —his concerns about his life and career, " Root said. "They delved much more into the mind of the man, and they took on what many other filmmakers have apparently avoided— a serious look at the ways in which Foster's music was later interpreted and made to mean different things.

"They looked very carefully at how 20th-century culture 'racialized' a lot of the music, when in Foster's own time it was a matter of class, not race, that he was criticizing," explained Root.

According to Root, the opinion that some of Foster's lyrics perpetuate racial stereotypes couldn't be further from the truth. "None was intended to stigmatize, be condescending, or create racial lines," he explained. "In fact, Foster was trying to show a common humanity. He tried to get people in genteel homes to sing those lyrics and embrace them as their own. And so slowly they would take on the notion that these slaves' concerns are their own concerns. It was a very powerful effect.

"I hope, after watching this documentary, that people take away a much greater knowledge of Foster's influence on American cultural history, and a better understanding of his mission to bring all people together, be they Irish, African, or Italian— a reconciliation across social lines and class structure," Root said.

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