when wiggles mentioned stephen foster in her last post, it made me think of how stevie boy actually helped me through a traumatic period of my childhood, with assistance on the keyboard from our father Bob. you know stephen foster, right? The composer of “camptown races,” “I dream of jeanie with the light brown hair” and “beautiful dreamer,” referred to in the title above? i was a little 10-year old and had no idea who stephen foster was until my mother heard me sing – or do something that approximated singing but sounded more like a wounded bat in its death throes.
although jeanne was very busy overcooking chicken and dreading the next time all 5 of her kids would be home for a school vacation, she was not too busy to press my father into service to at least get me to sing on key. so boberoo cleverly invited me to accompany him on the piano in the basement after dinner one night. He dragged out the stephen foster songbook and paged through it till he got to one of the classics: “Nell and I.” Now i have to tell you at this point that bob himself was not the greatest pianist under the sun (in fact, when he would be waiting for all of us to get ourselves together to go out as a family, he would threaten to play “the merry farmer,” which was guaranteed to drive us all out the door and into our chevy stationwagon in 5 seconds flat). his technique involved a lot of stopping and starting, hammered notes that were clearly wrong even to my terrible ear, and a curious insistence on starting from the beginning every time he made a mistake. yikes. add to that my off-key voice combo of jackie kennedy and ethel merman in the body of a 4th grader, and you have the makings of one scary musical evening.
but bob was pretty funny, and he encouraged me perfectly. for “Nell and I,” I’d sing the first line: “We wandered through the springtime of life…” and then bob would insert a musical flourish and crow, “SING IT, BABY!” and i would respond with a whispery, “Nell and I……” i am sure my siblings were collapsed in heaps of laughter upstairs, but no one said anything. Bob and i continued with our practice for months, until i could warble “Oh, Susanna” and “Glendy Burk” pretty well. and the truth of it is, is that with bob’s help, i gained so much more confidence singing that I not only joined my high school glee club but was its vice-president. they never sang any stephen foster, tho, which was a shame. I knew so many of the lyrics, i could have led the whole group.