Stephen Foster statue

‘Don’t you cry for’ Doo Dah Days, Pittsburgh’s suspended celebration of Stephen Foster

Organizers say this year’s hiatus has nothing to do with the removal of his controversial statue.

Doo Dah Days participants in 2013

Doo Dah Days participants in 2013

Courtesy of TOM POWERS / LAWRENCEVILLE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
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Updated 9:20 a.m.

Doo Dah Days went silent this year.

Traditionally held in July, the annual Lawrenceville festival honoring famed 19th Century composer and native son Stephen Foster was noticeably absent this summer on the heels of his controversial statue being removed from its Oakland perch in April by the City of Pittsburgh.

But event organizers told The Incline that controversy had no role in the decision to not host the festival in 2018 and that they’re planning to return next year, bigger and better than ever.

“Skipping 2018 was discussed after 2017’s indoor Doo Dah Nights” and before Civil War monuments and similar public artworks were reexamined nationwide following deadly Charlottesville clashes in August 2017, said Tom Powers, an author, historian and researcher with the Lawrenceville Historical Society, the group behind the fete.

The first Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival — also known as Doo Dah Days — was held July 1, 2006 and has since occurred at various venues, including the Allegheny Cemetery where Foster is buried. The last two gatherings were actually “Doo Dah Nights” held indoors at Spirit in Lawrenceville.

Powers said Wednesday that there are two possible venues for 2019, adding, “Our board has not really sat down to talk about either proposal, so until I can speak with authority on the matter, I’m going to keep quiet for now.”

In a follow-up email, Powers said a blurb on the society’s website announcing Arsenal Park as a possible location for the 2019 event was updated Wednesday to remove reference to the park and better reflect the current state of negotiations. He reaffirmed the historical society’s commitment to taking the festival back outdoors.

Even with his Oakland statue removed, Foster’s presence and legacy remain palpable in Pittsburgh.

The site of his childhood home at the corner of Penn Avenue and Denny Street in Lawrenceville bears an historical marker; the Stephen Foster Memorial, a Pitt building containing two theaters, the Center for American Music and a trove of Foster memorabilia, sits just across Forbes Avenue from the former site of his statue, which was removed in April after more than 100 years on public display. Then there’s the Mt. Lebanon school bearing Foster’s name; the Foster Window in Allegheny Cemetery, a Foster Street in Lawrenceville and a Stephen Foster Community Center.

This as most of the backlash surrounding the statue focused on its ragged depiction of an African-American male as opposed to Foster’s legacy — a complicated one in its own right. But there have been pockets of ire and signs that Foster may not be as widely embraced here as he once was.

This includes the painting over of a Foster mural on a private home located on 42nd Street in Lawrenceville last August.

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Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline

Others see Foster as a means of encouraging discussions — sometimes uncomfortable ones — around race in Pittsburgh and rapidly changing neighborhoods like Lawrenceville.

“Concerning Stephen Foster, that is a very complicated question as he was a very complicated individual,” said Brian Mendelssohn, a Lawrenceville booster, business owner and commercial real estate developer.

“During his time, his music and words, were very progressive. From today’s lens, it can be seen in many different ways.”

Mendelssohn added, “It is difficult to balance the music, lyrics, context, and today’s viewpoint. […] With all of that said, I believe there is a fascinating discussion to have concerning Stephen Foster, and events like Doo Dah Days help with that conversation, and I hope more insightful conversations happen since he is such an impactful figure and from Lawrenceville.”

Foster is known for penning American musical staples like “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” At the same time, his work was closely associated with blackface minstrelsy, a point sometimes seized upon by his critics. Foster’s supporters, meanwhile, argue that his musical depictions of African Americans grew increasingly progressive during his career, especially for that time. Foster was also close friends with Charles Shiras, a noted abolitionist.

Still, the city’s attempts to find a new home for the Foster statue have encountered reluctance from institutions like Pitt and Carnegie Museums. Even the Stephen Foster Memorial wanted no part of the artwork. A spokesperson explained that owes to the statue’s imagery and not to its symbolic reverence for the man.

“It conflated Foster, the historical figure, with incredibly offensive reconstructionist-era imagery,” Associate Director for the Center for American Music Kathryn Haines said of the statue in speaking with The Incline in April. “That wasn’t who Foster was.”

Without a taker, though, Pittsburgh’s Foster statue was placed into storage after being taken down, where it remains, mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty told The Incline on Wednesday.

Correction: This article has been updated to remove reference to a song mistakenly listed here as a Stephen Foster composition.

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