Thursday, March 24, 2011

...And That's What's the Matter!

When Stephen Collins Foster wrote "That's What's The Matter" in 1862 the country was being torn apart by civil war. Foster, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and related to previous President James Buchanan by marriage, had earned much of his living writing songs with slavery themes and often in blackface dialect. But, Foster's choice to side with the Union was probably not a difficult one for him and he doesn't appear to have harbored Copperhead sympathies. His lyrics in "That's What's The Matter" bear this fact out as he pokes fun at the Confederacy and strongly supports the Union war effort.

Author Ken Emerson in Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture explains that, "The song scolds the 'rebel crew' as if they were naughty boys, delights in their comeuppance at Shiloh, and praises the iron-clad Monitor and its true-blue captain, John Ericsson." At this particular time Foster was living in New York City and and according to Emerson "Since it has been built and launched in Brooklyn, the Monitor was a source of special pride to New Yorkers (and perhaps of additional pride to Foster because its guns had been manufactured in Pittsburgh."
The song's lively opening lines are, to me, some of Foster's most catchy.

"We live in hard and stirring times,
Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;
For songs of peace have lost their chimes,
And that's what's the matter.

The men we held as brothers true,
Have turn'd into a Rebel crew;
So, now we have to put them thro',
And that's what's the matter."

The song also apparently carried some significant cultural weight as well, as it's title appeared on the Civil War era envelopes pictured above and below.

If you are interested in seeing a short performance of this song give this link a look and listen:

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