"Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"
Sometimes a song is simply sublime. “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” is such a song, composed in 1854 by a young man whose music is still performed and whose name is still known around the world over 150 years after his untimely death at the age of 37.
Stephen Foster was born on an auspicious date, July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and coincidentally the day on which both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed from this life, each believing that the other had survived him. Adams and Jefferson were old on that fiftieth observance of the Glorious Fourth, but the United States and the nineteenth century were still young. It seems most fitting that such a day should also see the birth of someone who would become the most famous songwriter of his century, someone whose compositions indeed captured the spirit of both his country and his times.
The theme this week at Word & Song is verse: poetry itself. In his introduction of this week’s hymn, “Songs of Praise the Angels Sang,” my husband quoted Josef Pieper, who said that “only the lover sings.” Today’s composer, Stephen Foster, was a man who wrote songs because he loved. History has not bequeathed us much information about Foster’s private life, and his biographers have had to rely pretty heavily on speculation to tell us about him at all. We know not, for example, whether he died as the result of an accident or by his own hand. We do know, however, that he loved and married his own “Jeanie,” his wife, Jane MacDowell, who was known for her luxurious light brown hair. We also know that the two were living apart at the time of Foster’s death, but not much more than that. And we do know that the song he wrote about her and published in 1854 was a love song, though sadly a tale of a love lost. Perhaps this is why the lyrics and the haunting melody still resound so strongly with people to this day. The lover sings his delight in his loved one, and his song touches us all with the sadness of her loss. And perhaps it is best for the work of art— the song, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” — that the story behind it remain unknown. Thus the composer’s sentiment cannot easily be dismissed as a mere private sorrow, but must rather be acknowledged as true to the universal experience of human love and loss.
So I give you below Foster’s verse — his poem — and a rendition of it that I find unsurpassed in my experience of hearing “Jeanie” sung by so many and so well. I love to sing the song myself. But after all, this is a young man’s story of his lost love, and so I want to present it to you sung a man. Here is the excellent Thomas Hampson’s ever-so-excellent performance of a timeless American song.
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair, Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air; I see her tripping where the bright streams play, Happy as the daisies that dance on her way. Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour, Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o'er: Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair, Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air. I long for Jeanie with the day-dawn smile, Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile; I hear her melodies, like joys gone by, Sighing round my heart o'er the fond hopes that die. Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain, Wailing for the lost one that comes not again. Oh! I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low, Never more to find her where the bright waters flow. I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed Far from the fond hearts round her native glade; Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown, Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone. Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore While her gentle fingers will cull them no more. Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair, Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.
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My dad sang this song to me in the late 40’s. I have lovely memories of his beautiful voice. He also had the habit of adding his own verses and words!!
Huh. Never woulda thunk it. I've of course heard various songs by Stephen Foster, but didn't know "I Dream of Jeanie" was by him. And I haven't really thought of him as having a particular "style" (though I haven't thought of him as having "no particular style" either -- just haven't really thought about it much). But curiously, after reading your comments, and then clicking on the video and hearing the first few lines sung, I immediately thought "Oh yeah -- that's clearly a Stephen Foster song." And the odd thing is that I can't put my finger on exactly why -- something about the melodic patterns or intervals jumped or some such. But I can still "hear" the style somehow and recognize it, something I hadn't noticed before (perhaps because when I've heard Foster songs in the past -- aside from the uber-famous ones --, I tended to hear them in groups, so that I wasn't "comparing them" or the like.)
Anyway, interesting read. Thank you (and pleasant to see -- even the possible sad bits -- if only because I seem to remember seeing something a while back about a move to "cancel" the guy for whatever passes for "reasons" these days. But not gonna go there. Just too pleasant and, well, pleasing, to hear today's song. Again, thanks.