HOLLYWOOD - His classic songs grew out of one of the greatest periods of racial and social upheaval in this nation's history and are so embedded in America's musical fabric they can seem more the product of folk tradition than the pen of one man.
Yet his name, unlike those of such musical disciples as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, often draws more puzzled looks than instant recognition.
That's the trouble with being Stephen Foster, widely considered the first quintessentially American songwriter, whose music Dylan, among others, has cited as a profound influence on his own.
"A lot of people I respect musically are unclear about who Foster is," says L.A.-based singer-songwriter Grey DeLisle. She's one of nearly two dozen acts on the new tribute album Beautiful Dreamer - The Songs of Stephen Foster, which is due Aug. 24 and spans such widely known compositions as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races" and "Hard Times Come Again No More," along with less frequently performed tunes, including "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai," "No One to Love" and "Nelly Was a Lady."
To Steve Fishell, who produced the album with David Macias, the most interesting aspect of Foster's career was his shift away from catering to the minstrel shows popular in the 1800s, when white performers would smear their faces with burnt cork and offer caricatures of blacks as entertainment.
"He had an epiphany in the middle of his career when he realized these minstrel songs he'd been writing had been tasteless," Fishell said. "Some of those lyrics are very offensive today. But he came to realize that and went so far as to withhold songs from established artists like the Christy's Minstrels. ... Foster said, 'Cut out these [offensive] songs or I won't give you any of my new material.' ... That was important and influential, and it made a difference in the way African-Americans were perceived later on."
Even fewer people know about Foster's contributions toward improving relations between whites and blacks in mid-19th-century America than know about the most basic details of his short life.
"When we thought about doing this record, we made the assumption that everybody would know who he was and what songs he wrote," says Tamara Saviano, whose nonprofit company, American Roots Publishing, will issue the Foster collection as its inaugural release. "That certainly has not turned out to be the case, which makes it more important that this album exists."
Alison Krauss, Mavis Staples, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Shocked and the Mavericks' Raul Malo are among the diverse group of singers on an album that aims to raise Foster's profile among pop, country, folk and rock listeners.
"His songs are so ingrained in our consciousness and he was so prolific," says DeLisle, who sings the haunting "Willie We Have Missed You," written in 1854, a decade before Foster died at 37 with less than a dollar in his pocket, despite having written dozens of the most popular songs of his day.
"People didn't write songs the way people learned a trade in those days because they were building a country," says De- Lisle. "It's so common now for people to try to earn a living writing songs, but to have somebody then really being an artist was going against the entire social structure, and that's amazing."
One challenge for some of the performers was getting a grip on some of the phrasing typical of 19th-century writing.
"A couple of people actually had to politely excuse themselves and bow out because they couldn't relate to what seemed to be an arcane language style," Fishell says. "That wasn't the case for most people. They found something in the words they could connect with and found them to be timeless."
In fact, Foster's continued relevance to contemporary pop-music royalty figured into an April interview with Dylan. Dylan advised would-be songwriters not to study his songs, but to seek out earlier writers, and cited Foster as one whose music he often goes back to for lessons in songwriting craft. Dylan's comments spurred Saviano and Fishell to move forward full steam with this project, which was in its early stages at that point.
Since the late 1970s, when Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" turned up on several rock and pop artists' albums or at their concerts, his music has been fading from the public consciousness, Saviano believes. The reason she started American Roots Publishing was to provide a forum for regional musical and literary voices that normally wouldn't attract the attention of mainstream record labels or publishers.
Despite wide public interest in Foster's music while he was alive, he was forced to eke out an existence in New York City and died in 1864 after gashing his throat in a fall. He had 38 cents in his wallet when he died at Bellevue Hospital.
"When [singer-songwriter] Elliott Smith died recently, I thought of Stephen Foster," says DeLisle. "Both got a little acclaim during their lifetimes, but neither ever made a great living off their art. Both were so gifted, and came to a typical tragic artist ending. So nothing really changes."
The flip side of the financial short shrift Foster experienced is the way this album has come together. "All the artists donated their performances, and we merely had to cover expenses," says Fishell, who added that the record was made for under $15,000.
Saviano says proceeds will go back into American Roots Publishing to fund other such projects and, she hopes, educational programs to spotlight other important but overlooked American artists, writers and musicians such as Foster.
"Everybody else followed in his footsteps, yet so few people recognize his name," she says. "Even though we just have 18 of the hundreds of songs he wrote on this one, it's a good start."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.