Larry Kirwan Presents
Stephen Foster in The Five Points
A SoundPress.net Feature Article by Rich and Laura Lynch

Musician Larry Kirwan presented Stephen Foster in the Five Points at the Ender Hallab Theatre on the campus of Bergen Community College (BCC) in Paramus, New Jersey on April 16, 2015. The production was a lecture and musical performance about composer Stephen Foster. Foster wrote some of America's earliest pop songs including "Oh! Susanna", "Swanee River" and more. Kirwan's show focused on the later years of Stephen's life when Foster was living in the notorious lower Manhattan slum known as The Five Points. During the 1850's and 1860's this neighborhood was also an entertainment hub in which people from different backgrounds blended together under the banner of music.


Larry Kirwan presents Stephen Foster in the Five Points in Paramus.

Larry Kirwan is a musician, playwright and novelist. Kirwan often writes about American and Irish history and politics. Larry is best known as the lead singer of Black 47 - a Celtic-rock band based out of New York City. The group, which recently disbanded after 25 years were well respected for their caustic commentary in songs that melded folk, Irish, punk, reggae and rock. Larry is also promoting his new book A History of Irish Music, which as the title suggests is about the history of Irish music starting with Larry's roots in Medieval Wexford to modern day NYC in the context of revolutions, social unrest and wars.

The stage set up at BCC was stark as Larry armed with a black acoustic guitar opened with a song about the tough times in The Five Points. Kirwan's narration took us back to the 1860's to the dark and dangerous neighborhood where Stephen Foster who is considered the father of American music lived. Some history of the place and times were woven into Larry's speech and the second song of the set. We learned that multi-instrumentalist Foster wrote "Oh! Susanna" when he was twenty-one years old. The tune went "viral" so to speak, thanks to the telegraph a new invention that allowed people from around the world to experience the words Stephen had penned. Larry played the song on the guitar tapping the body of the instrument for a beat.

Larry shared that Stephen may have had a turbulent marriage. The couple would frequently separate and they only had one child together. Despite their ups and downs Foster paid tribute to the Mrs. with a gift of a song. "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" was another Foster composition performed by Larry. Kirwan said that there has been speculation that Stephan might have been gay but this has not been verified in part because his brother destroyed many of Stephen's papers in an effort to avoid scandal and protect the family name.

Apparently, Foster spent a lot of time in the dance halls and saloons absorbing the multi-cultural grooves that surrounded him. These sounds found their way into the songs that Stephan wrote during the last prolific years of his life. One of the most memorable was the visual "Beautiful Dreamer" which Larry performed. Foster was not even paid by his publisher for this timeless tune as people during that period preferred military music. The publisher made millions on the song which was released posthumously.

"Stephan Foster was a man of mystery who died young" said Kirwan who painted a dreary picture of the songwriter's death. Larry opted to end the spoken word and song segment of his show on a happier note with a reprisal of "Oh! Susanna". He encouraged the audience to clap along to the cheerful tune. From the stage, Larry asked if there were any questions. A number of people wanted to know more about Kirwan's research. This unfolded into Larry sharing some of his life story and how he became interested in Foster during the early part of his career. Although The Five Points are gone there are still traces of the place. Amusingly, Larry lives in close proximity to the once seedy streets that Foster would have traversed and Kirwan proclaims that Stephan's presence can still be felt there.

Stephen Foster in the Five Points is part of an ongoing project called Hard Times: An American Musical which Larry has been working on for a number of years. An adaptation of the play has already been critically received in the press and if all goes according to plan the story of Stephen Foster will begin a run on The Great White Way in 2016. Kirwan's performance was educational, entertaining and it's exciting to think that this event was just one small step on the path of a production bound for Broadway.


Related Links: For more information on LARRY KIRWAN and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links -- Larry Kirwan | Bergen Community College

(Originally Published on April 18, 2015)

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