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 If the novel with a purpose is not a suitable theatre for the display of negro character, neither is the comic minstrel show. The songs written by Stephen Collins Foster (1826-64) retain still their deserved popularity but they do not portray the negro from within. Old black Joe, Old Uncle Ned, My old Kentucky home, Old Folks at home, or Way down upon the Suwanee River are the best-known songs ever written by an American. Words, music, and sentiment are welded into perfect unity and harmony. ‘Old Folks at home,’ says Louis C. Elson,1 ‘is the chief American folk-song, and Stephen Collins Foster is as truly the folk-song genius of America as Weber or Silcher have been of Germany.’ On the contrary, Foster can hardly be called a writer of folk-songs at all. His songs are pure sentimentality. The old-time negro, however, was religious, musical, humorous, loyal, emotional, improvident, diplomatic, philosophical, almost everything in fact except sentimental. These songs are not folk-songs, therefore, because the dialect is purely artificial, because neither words nor music originated with the negroes, and because the sentiment they express is alien to the race by whom these songs are supposed to be sung. They are sung, in fact, so far as the writer's observation goes, only by white people, never by negroes, except in a minstrel show. The man who really discovered the literary material latent in negro character and in negro dialect was Irwin Russell (1853-79), of Mississippi. The two men best qualified to pass judgment, Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, have both borne grateful testimony to Russell's genius and to their indebtedness to him. It is noteworthy also that the first marble bust that the State of Mississippi has placed in her Hall of Fame is that of Irwin Russell. Russell's greatest poem is Christmas night in the quarters (1878). In its fidelity to the humble life that it seeks to portray, in the simplicity of its style, the genuineness of its feeling, the distinctness of its pictures, and the sympathy that inspires it, Christmas night belongs in the class with Burns's Cotter's Saturday night and Whittier's Snow-Bound. ‘Burs,’ said Russell, ‘is my idol. He seems to me the greatest man that God ever created, beside whom all other poets are utterly ’
1 History of American music (1904).
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