"Ghost Of Stephen Foster" as written by James Mathus and Andrew Bird....
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Ghost Of Stephen Foster song meanings
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  • +3
    Song MeaningStephen Foster was the first American songwriter to actually make a living off of his songs... so it seems fitting first of all for modern songwriters to mention him in their music; they owe him a lot really.

    But the appearance of "Camptown Races" in a minor key and the lyrics surrounding it imply a chastising tone... what I instantly think of regarding this is that Foster wrote minstrel tunes, and while he worked hard to depict a different (better, more humane) image of blacks than the songs of the day did, he was rather naive about slavery (he only visited the Deep South once, after all). He never really was able to show the suffering the slaves endured in his music, for which he has been criticised. The lyrics in this song indicate that the speaker is telling the ghost of Stephen Foster essentially "how it is" and that's why it reminds me of that criticism.

    The reference to whiskey ("whiskey made for drinking") refers to Stephen Foster's problem with alcoholism after he and his wife separated. Since he was trying to drown out his worries with alcohol, the song says "if we were made of cellophane we'd all get stinking drunk much faster" - like "too bad you couldn't just absorb the alcohol straight into your body, it'd be easier..."

    I like the dark harmonies and minor chords; after all, Foster's life was not happy like many of his songs depicted happy, carefree lives. His death was incredibly tragic - he died at the age of 38 after gashing his face on a broken wash basin.

    My question is, why is the hotel called the "Hotel Paradise"? Foster was living at the American Hotel when he had his accident... maybe it's some kind of subtle irony... America/paradise... who knows.
    eowynneon November 12, 2008   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationI was listening to a bunch of Squirrel Nut Zippers CDs the other day to cheer myself up, and for the first time the probable true meaning of this song struck me, and I was like, "Holy crap...". This song isn't just a fun, weird, fantasy romp.

    The thing that opened my eyes is the extremely Yiddish sound of the fiddle portions of the song, something not typical for the Zippers. While I think that eowynne is right that the song _can_ be interpreted as commentary on the plight of African Americans at Stephen Foster's time, and Foster's lack of acknowledgment of this, I think "Camptown ladies never sang all the doo dah day, no, no, no" really refers to the ladies of Jewish death camps circa WWII.

    "Gwine to run all night / Gwine to run all day" then appropriates the black vernacular to refer to Jews having to run to escape from the Nazis.

    I just realized right now that "If we were made of cellophane, we'd all get stinking drunk quite faster, ha, ha, ha" most likely refers to starved interned Jews' skin becoming as thin as cellophane (I think I've heard that phrase used before in that context), and its certainly true that you would get stinking drunk a lot faster with such low body weight and a long-empty stomach.

    "The Hotel Paradise" refers to meeting Stephen Foster in heaven.

    The rest of the lyrics are fairly obscure to me, but "Rooms were made for carpets" could certainly mean that only carpets and the like should be locked up in rooms, not humans. "Towers made for spires" could mean they should be used for decoration rather than as internment camp guard towers. (Also, "Ships were made for sinking" could refer to the deserved sinking of Nazi ships during WWII combat, but that one may be a stretch.)

    Further evidence for this interpretation is the tolling bell, shortwave radio whistle, and terrifying bass bowed strings that open the song before the Yiddish music comes in.

    I'm pretty sure I'm one of the only people to realize what this song is really about. (I haven't seen the music video in a long time, so not sure if there is any support for this interpretation in there, but probably whoever funded the video wouldn't have wanted to present a dark literal vision for such a catchy song.)

    Thank you, SNZ, for writing such an amazing song -- stealth political / humanitarian commentary songs are so much more affecting than the typical wear-it-on-your-sleeve ones.

    Dan Harkless
    Dan Harklesson January 16, 2014   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI didn't know the name Stephen Foster until this song(though I did hear his compositions quite often, like most everybody). I'm intrigued by the Camptown Ladies reference and the dismissive "no no no" that follows. It seems to be saying that there's something inherently dishonest about Foster's work.

    I think the other comments here do a better job than I would at exploring that further, so I'll only add that the music video is a parody of the Betty Boop cartoon Minnie the Moocher. It even has a send-up of the Cab Calloway intro.
    bokononiston January 07, 2014   Link
  • 0
    General Commentoh my god..... i just can't sit down.... today i started to dance at the busstop. everybody must have thought i was crazy... but who cares? the song is great....
    justinethereseon April 02, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis song is awesome... but what does it mean? if anything? is this just a random song to get people hyped?
    waterbottleon April 13, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is about the American songwriter Stephen Foster. He's known for writing "Oh! Susana!" and "Camptown Races", the latter being referenced in this song with the lines "Camptown ladies never sang all the doo dah day no, no, no". (The famous chorus of Stephen Foster's song goes "De Camptown ladies sing dis song -- Doo-dah! doo-dah! De Camptown racetrack five miles long -- Oh! doo-dah day!")
    Mr. Foster's body was found outside of a hotel in Manhattan after his wife and children left him.

    Anyways, this is an awesome song :)
    jeshioon August 16, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentOne of my favorite songs. I wish I knew what each line was a reference to though, especially "if we were made of cellophane'"
    zephidon January 09, 2008   Link

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