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324 Topics: Stephen Foster and his songs; “ish” suffix; California casual; “If it be your will”

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 324.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 324. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Our website is eslpod.com. Go there to become a Learning Guide member – well, a member of ESL Podcast, and when you become a member you get our wonderful Learning Guides, which we provide for each of our episodes that helps you improve your English even faster. You can also like us on Facebook; go to facebook.com/eslpod.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about only one topic. We’re going to talk about Stephen Foster. Now, you may not know who Stephen Foster is, but he’s a very famous songwriter in American history, and we’re going to talk about three of his most famous songs. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café is going to be devoted to – that is, we are going to talk only about Stephen Foster and his most well known songs. I’ll tell you a little about Foster and then I want to spend some time talking about three of his songs. We actually talked already back in English Café 259 about another one of Stephen Foster’s famous songs: “Oh! Susanna.” Today, we’ll talk about three more that are also well known by many Americans, even though the songs are more than 100 years old.

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is in the northeastern part of the United States. He was born in 1826, when the United States was still a young country. He soon became America’s preeminent songwriter. The word “preeminent” (preeminent) means the best or most important. Many people think Foster was America’s preeminent songwriter, because he wrote songs better than anyone else. We like to think that ESL Podcast is the preeminent podcast on the Internet; other people might have other opinions.

Foster enjoyed what were called “minstrel songs.” “Minstrel” (minstrel) refers to shows that were popular in the United States, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These shows had basically white people who would paint their faces and pretend to be black people while singing and entertaining on stage. Most people would find this sort of performance offensive nowadays. That is, they would consider it racist and not something that you would want to go and see. But they were popular when Foster was writing his music, and so many of his songs had the minstrel style. But he tended to choose “lyrics,” words that were less offensive and perhaps more acceptable to what we would call a “broader” (broader) or bigger audience – a larger group of people.

People often call Foster the “Father of American Music” because he wrote so many songs that remain popular even today, more than 150 years after they were written. As I mentioned, we talked about one of Foster’s songs, “Oh! Susanna,” back in Café 259. On this Café, I want to talk about three other songs. Let’s start with “Camptown Races.”

A “camptown” (camptown – one word) is a poor community – or was a poor community of African American or black people usually living at the edge of or outer limits of a town or city; not in the middle of the city, that’s where the rich people lived. They lived in, perhaps, what we would now call the “suburbs.” The camptowns had poor African Americans living there. This was a very common phenomenon in the early and mid-1800s. This song is about some races, in particular horseraces that are taking place in a camptown. People are betting on the horses. “To bet” (bet) means to gamble, to try to win money by guessing which horse will win.

Horseracing remains popular in the United States. There are three famous races that are on television every year. Here in Southern California, we have a couple of places where you can watch horse racing and bet money on it. I’ve never actually been to the ones here in Southern California. I used to go to one that was back in the Twin Cities in Minnesota when I lived there. I’m not a big gambler; I’m not someone who bets a lot of money.

Anyway, the song “Camptown Races” includes several nonsense words. “Nonsense” (nonsense) means words that don’t have any meaning. “Non” is a negative prefix; “sense” means that it’s meaningful, that it makes sense. So, “nonsense” is something that doesn’t make any sense; it’s just a word we use often in a song because it sounds nice. You’ll hear me sing, for example, “doo-da” (doo-da), but that’s just a word or a set of sounds that Foster made up; it doesn’t have any meaning, at least not in this song.

So with no further delay, here’s my “rendition,” my version of this classic Americans song, “Camptown Races.” I’ll sing it, then we’ll talk about what it means.

The Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, doo-da!
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, de doo-da day!

Goin’ to run all night,
Goin’ to run all day!
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag,
Somebody bet on the gray.

The first line of the song is “The Camptown ladies (the women) sing this song,” the song that he is about to sing, “Doo-da, doo-da,” which, of course, is nonsense. “The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long.” The “racetrack” is the course that the horses took, usually they go around in a circle; that circle is called the “racetrack.” Well, the Camptown racetrack that Foster is writing about is five miles long; that’s how long the track is. “Oh, de doo-da day.” Again, nonsense words

The next part of the song says, “Goin’ to run all night.” But, as often happens in English in a song or when we are speaking informally, we sometimes drop, or get rid of the “g” for a word like “going.” So instead of saying “going,” we would say “goin’.” “Goin’ to run all night.” In other words, the races are going to continue all night; they’re going to run all night – or the horses, I guess, will run all night. “Goin’ to run all day / I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag (nag).” A “nag” is, in this sense, a horse. “Bob-tailed” is any kind of animal that has a very short tail. So, a “bob-tailed nag” would be a horse with a short tail. “Nag” (nag) can also be a verb to describe someone who is always bothering you about something. Sometimes husbands will tell their wives to stop nagging them – stop telling them the same thing over and over again, telling them what to do. Husbands, of course, really love when their wives tell that what to do – almost as much as wives love husbands telling them what to do! Well, we’re not talking about that kind of nagging; we’re talking about a horse. He says, at the end of the song, that somebody bet on the gray, meaning the horse that was the color gray.

So, one more time:

The Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, doo-da!
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, de doo-da day!

Goin’ to run all night,
Goin’ to run all day!
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag,
Somebody bet on the gray.

Our next Foster song is called “Beautiful Dreamer.” It was published “posthumously,” that is, after Foster had died. “Posthumously” (posthumously) has the prefix “post” (post), which is pronounced “post” in the word, which means after. And, of course, “humously” relates to human, in this case being alive, so “posthumously” means after the human has died.

This song has a man singing to a woman that he is in love with, but we think that she may actually be dead already; it isn’t clear from the lyrics. The song has been sung in many different styles and by many different musicians and groups, including The Beatles and a famous Americans singer from the 1940s and 50s Bing Crosby. I’m going to give you not The Beatles, not Bing Crosby, but my own rendition or version of this song. As always, I’ll sing it, and then we’ll explain it.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away!

The man is singing to this beautiful dreamer, someone who is either asleep or possibly dead; he’s asking her to wake up and look at him – “wake unto me.” He says that starlight and dewdrops are waiting for her. “Starlight” is the light that comes from the stars in the night up in the sky. “Dewdrops” are small, little drops of water that are found sometimes on plants or on the grass in the morning, when changes in the temperature cause the water to collect there. He says that starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee. “Thee” is an old-fashioned way of saying “you.” “Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day” is the next line. “Rude” (rude) is inconsiderate, mean, not nice. These sounds are heard in the day, but “They’ve been lull’d by the moonlight.” To lull” (lull) usually means to make people fall asleep. So, the moonlight, the light of the moon, has made all of these rude sounds, or sounds of the rude world, fall asleep. They have “pass’d away,” which actually means they have died.

The third song I want to talk about is called “Old Folks at Home.” “Folks” are people, family; we often talk about our parents as our “folks.” It’s, however, more popularly known among Americans as “Swanee River.” “Old Folks at Home” is one of those minstrel songs we talked about earlier. It was written by Foster in 1851; it was intended to be performed by some minstrels in New York. The song is controversial because many of the lyrics nowadays would be considered racist towards black or African Americans, and the person singing the song is singing the song as if he were an African American. However, the song remained popular and became the state song for the State of Florida. The Suwannee River, which Foster misspelled when he heard it, is located in Florida. Foster had never seen the river, had never been there, but he used that word – or actually a corruption of that word – as a word in his song. Interestingly, one of the most famous recordings of this song was by an African American singer in the 1940s, a man by the name of Paul Robeson. So, here’s the song:

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away,
There’s where my heart is turning ever,
There’s where the old folks stay.

All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam.
Oh Lordy, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home!

So, this man is singing how he misses the place where he was from or where he was living, the Swanee River. He says his heart is turning ever, meaning he’s always thinking about Swanee River, that’s where the old folks stay, perhaps his parents or his family. In the chorus, the repeating part of the song, he says, “All the world is sad and dreary.” “Dreary” (dreary) means sad, but it also means sort of dark, gray; you know, when the sky is full of clouds and it looks like it’s going to rain that could be considered dreary – a dreary day. Or something that’s terrible, something that’s awful could also be called “dreary.” “All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam.” “Roam” (roam) is to walk around, often without any particular destination; you’re not sure where you’re going. So, the singer is saying that everywhere he goes it’s sad and dreary. Then he says, “Oh Lordy” – “Lordy” is just an old-fashioned word; we might nowadays say, “oh, man” – “how my heart grows weary.” “To be weary” (weary) means be tired, to be very exhausted after perhaps a long trip or journey. Well, his heart grows weary; his heart is tired, because it is far from the old folks at home.

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away,
There’s where my heart is turning ever,
There’s where the old folks stay.

All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam.
Oh Lordy, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home!

Well, not exactly like Paul Robeson!

Stephen Foster died at a very young age; he was only 37 years old. He died in 1864, towards the end of the American Civil War, in New York City. He supported the northern states. Foster did not ever make any money or very much money from his songs. This is because the United States did not have a very good “copyright” system, a system to protect the written works and creative works that people produced. One of his songs – another one of his songs, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is the official song of the State of Kentucky, so he actually has two songs that are official songs: one in Florida and one in Kentucky. The museum dedicated to Stephen Foster is in Pittsburgh in the State of Pennsylvania. Remember, Foster is from Pennsylvania.

Foster’s songs are definitely an important part of American culture, of its musical history, and for that reason he’s still well known today.

Now let’s answer some of your questions.

Our first question comes from Juan (Juan) in Columbia. Juan wants to know the meaning of the suffix that he has heard sometimes: “ish.” A “suffix” is something that goes at the back of a word – at the end of a word. Something that you add to the beginning of the word is called a “prefix.” So what does this suffix “ish” mean?

Well one meaning, which is particularly popular nowadays, when it is added to a number, it means approximately. “How old is your sister?” You might say, “Oh, she’s 30-ish,” around 30, maybe 31, maybe 29. You say, “Well, don’t you know how old your sister is?” but that’s a different problem.

“Ish” could also be used with a color: “What color is his hair?” “It’s reddish,” it’s sort of red, not exactly red but close to red.

“Ish” can also means similar to or having the qualities of: “He has boyish good looks.” That’s actually a common expression: “boyish good looks.” “Boyish” (boyish) of course has the word “boy” in it; “boy” here really indicates young, so he looks like a young man – a handsome, young man, good looks.

“Ish” is also used sometimes with countries to form an adjective meaning related to: “It is Swedish food.” Swedish food is from Sweden. “Ish” is usually used for countries that end in “n” or languages that may end in “n.” We may talk about Spanish cooking or British beer. Both Spain and Britain end with an “n,” and so the “ish” is added to make an adjective for those particular countries.

Sometimes we add “ish” to a time when we are going to or expected to be somewhere almost as a joke. “I’m going to be there at 8:30-ish,” meaning not exactly at 8:30; I might be a little late. That’s kind of the idea.

Fabian, or Fabian, (Fabian) in Brazil, or Brazil, wants to know the meaning of an expression he heard on the show The Simpsons, which some of you are probably familiar with. The term is “California casual.” “California,” of course, refers to the State of California, where we are. “Casual” is, in this sense, the opposite of formal. “Casual clothing” is clothing that you wouldn’t wear to a job interview; it’s less formal than that. Sometimes we call casual clothing “street clothes,” the clothes that ordinary people wear on the street. California casual, however, are street clothes, but they’re a little better; they’re a little more fashionable. They’re also things that you could wear in a warm weather area like California. So, it wouldn’t be t-shirts; that’s not fashionable enough – that’s not fancy enough, but it might be some other sort of shirt or, for a woman, a top. It might be nice shoes or sandals, but not tennis shoes – not running shoes.

There are some related adjectives in talking about clothing that I’ll add here: one is “business casual.” “Business casual” is clothing you could wear to work, but it’s not the most formal clothing. It’s more formal than California casual, and certainly more formal than street clothes, but it isn’t the highest or most formal kind of dress. The next most formal would be “business attire.” “Attire” (attire) is just another word for clothing. “Business attire” is clothes that would be appropriate for a formal interview or a formal presentation. You’re meeting someone important in your company or the president of your company, you might, there, want to wear business attire. Even more formal than business attire is what we would call simply “formal wear,” sometimes we use the expression “black tie.” A “black tie” is just what it sounds like, a tie going around your neck for a man. Often, we think “black tie” we think “bow tie,” a specific type of tie that doesn’t go down the front of the body, but is like two triangles that are connected at the very top of the shirt. Formal or black tie is clothing you would wear for a very formal event: for a wedding, you’re going to meet the president, or the Pope, or an important world leader. You’re going to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, you would definitely want to have a black tie if you’re a man for that; for a woman, it would be other kinds of very formal dresses.

The terms “street clothes,” “business casual,” “business attire,” and “formal” have been around for a long time, and most people know what they mean. However, there is some variation from different parts of the country. What’s considered business casual in, say, Minnesota might not be business casual in Texas or in New York. So, if you are in the U.S. and someone says, “Oh, wear business casual,” you probably would want to ask a few more questions about what kind of clothes specifically they are thinking of. “California casual” is a newer term, so it isn’t always one that people understand. It may be used here in California to distinguish between clothing you might wear to the beach versus clothing you could go to a party or a restaurant in. In areas outside of California it might refer to the casual clothing that Californians think is right even though it may be too informal for the normal situation in another place.

Bernard (Bernard), or Bernard, in France, or France, wants to know the meaning of a title of a Leonard Cohen song: “If it Be Your Will.” Bernard wants to know why isn’t “if it is your will.” Well, this is a rather special, one might say, poetic use that is not found in English as often as it used to be. Technically, and I might be wrong about this, but I think it would be considered a subjunctive mood verb. And no, I’m not going to go through and explain all that. You can look up “subjunctive” (subjunctive) if you really care. “If it be your will” really means if it is your will. It’s now considered an old-fashioned way of speaking, but you’ll see it in songs and poems because it is something perhaps a little more formal or a little more artistic sounding. It’s not a form, however, that we use very much today. You’ll only find it in perhaps prayers and poems, as I said. Native speakers of English don’t use it normally; they would just say, “if it is; if it’s okay with you.” We wouldn’t say, “if it be okay with you,” that would sound very strange to the average native speaker. So it’s something you now see only really in special cases.

Well, we’ve just spent 10-ish minutes talking about your questions. If you have additional questions or comments email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse, copyright 2011 by the Center for Educational Development.

preeminent – the best or the most important; the most respected and/or known

* We’ve invited the preeminent expert on lung cancer research to speak at this year’s luncheon.

minstrel – a type of show popular in the United States from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, where white people painted their faces and pretended to be black people while singing and entertaining on stage

* Minstrel shows often traveled from town to town to entertain the local townspeople.

camptown – a poor community of black people living together at the outer limit of a town or city in the early and mid-1800s

* The homes in this camptown were often small, temporary, and not well constructed.

to bet – to gamble; to try to win money by guessing the winner of a race or another type of contest

* Did you bet on which football team will win the Super Bowl?

nonsense – spoken or written words that have no meaning or that don’t make sense

* The baby has been speaking nonsense for two weeks, but today, she said “mama.”

rendition – version; a performance of acting or playing music done in the performer’s own way, which may be different from the original

* Michael’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra turns it into a rock song!

posthumously – after the death of a writer, composer (writer of music), artist or other producer of creative works

* The author died at the early age of 37 and two of his books were published posthumously.

dewdrop – a small bead of water found on the leaves of plants early in the morning, when changes in temperature cause water to collect there

* Watch this plant carefully and you’ll see insects drinking water from dewdrops.

to lull – to calm someone and to cause him or her to go to sleep, usually by singing a song or with calming movements

* His father’s quiet voice always lulls the baby to sleep.

dreary – dull, sad, and/or unhappy, usually used to describe a situation or person

* We thought the movie was too dreary, without even a little humor.

weary – tired or without energy, especially after a lot of hard work or traveling

* By the time we finished our 15-hour flight to Athens, we were very weary.

copyright – legal protection for artistic and creative work, such as artwork, books, and songs, so that they cannot be used without the creator’s permission

* We can’t use this drawing in our advertising campaign because the artist has copyright and he won’t give his permission.

California casual – a description of a style of clothing, which includes fashionable street clothes that would be appropriate in California, such as blouses and tops but not t-shirts, nice shoes or sandals, and nice shorts

* Jaimie said to dress California casual to the party, so there’s no need for us to wear a formal suit or dress.

if it be – an old-fashioned way of saying “if it is” to express an idea that is uncertain in the mind of the speaker

* If it be your will, I will remain here with your family.

(one’s) will – what one wishes; what one wants to do or to have happen

* It is the company president’s will that all of the employees work an extra hour each day without pay.

What Insiders Know
Horseracing and the Daily Racing Form

The song “Camptown Races” mentioned in this English Café has long been “associated” (connected) with horseracing. In fact, some “racetracks” (places where horse, dog, and other types of races are run) have events named after Stephen Foster or “Camptown Races.” For instance, the famous racetrack, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, where the well-known horserace the Kentucky Derby is run each year, has an event called “Stephen Foster Super Saturday” each spring or summer.

If you like attending horseraces in the U.S., you are probably familiar with the Daily Racing Form. The Daily Racing Form is a newspaper “founded” (started) in 1894 in Chicago, Illinois, and today, publishes 30 “editions” (versions) each day.

The Daily Racing Form publishes information on racehorses, giving important “statistics” (facts in the form of numbers about a person, thing, or event). It also publishes the results of past races, helping “bettors,” people who gamble money on the results of races, select horses to bet on.

Each year, the Daily Racing Form “hands out” (gives) a “prestigious” (respected) award called the “Eclipse Award.” The award is named after a famous British racehorse from the 1700s named Eclipse. (The word “eclipse” means when a large object in the sky passes in front of another large object in the sky, such as when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun.) The Eclipse Award is given to “champions” (winners) in the sport of horseracing each year. The highest award given each year is the “Horse of the Year” prize.