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Stephen Foster festival: The sun shines bright on Bardstown

The narrow roads that Kentuckians call pikes were all ours. Well, almost. Once we met a smart-looking wicker governess's cart drawn by a fat pony and guided by a starched nanny. Once we were nudged aside by an imperious Rolls Royce. The tree-shaded pike edged corn and rye fields. Thoroughbreds looked haughtily at us over rail fences.

Suddenly we emerged from the trees and entered the dazzling sunshine that bathed Bardstown in August heat. We hadn't come to see this, the state's second oldest, town. We didn't come to ``ooh'' and ``ah'' at the treasure Fort Knox holds only a few miles away. We'd come here for the town's annual Stephen Foster Festival.

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Back in the '50s, while the rest of the world was singing ``Mack the Knife'' with Bobby Darin, Bardstown was singing ``My Old Kentucky Home,'' ``I Dream of Jeannie,'' ``Beautiful Dreamer,'' and other Foster ballads.

In 1959, Bardstown's own beautiful dream came true. After two years of honing and trimming a two-act play under the keen eye and ear of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Green, the town mounted its first Stephen Foster Festival before a June crowd that numbered an astonishing 60,000 people.

By last year, the event was attracting a million and a half Foster devotees, between its opening during the first week in June and its closing Aug. 30. Performed under the stars, the event has had to retreat to the high school auditorium only once, when a tornado was forecast. (A tree lay across the amphitheater stage the next day.)

Everyone in Bardstown gets ``into the act.'' Those not in the cast of 55 serve as seamstresses, or scene painters, ushers, or pony cart guides. The people of Bardstown themselves do nothing so corny as dressing in 1850 costumes. Only the cast wears rich satins, old lace, rustling taffetas, and carries delicate fans.

Among the enthusiastic visitors to the festival are the Japanese, who apparently have been fascinated by Kentucky for years. It turns out that they are mad about Stephen Foster - and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the largest fast-food chain in Japan.

A Japanese company even arranged for the Stephen Foster story play to be performed in Tokyo in 1985. The cast played to SRO crowds at New York prices - after a hasty reworking of the Japanese-built scenery that had all the doors cut six inches too low. It is a Japanese custom to be very quiet during a performance - they're afraid they'll miss something - but at the end there was wave after wave of applause, and a great deal of bowing.

Once here, whether from Tokyo or Tarrytown, Bardstown is best explored on foot. The town square is a delight, with its Federal-style court house, the historic Talbott Inn, the soaring cathedral (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), and the museum hemming in a spacious Common. And you can just look around to see one of the finest collections of Federal architecture in the world, built by wealthy pioneers who were willing to spend money on gracious mansions.

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You feel as if the town has stood still for over a century, that Foster even now could be rushing to a piano to dash off a song. Nonetheless, since his time, some lyrics have been revised in the old ones. ``Darkie'' has been changed to ``people.'' No Kentuckian says ``gwine,'' but that word is left in. Did the slaves speak to Foster like that?

Charlotte Foster, the composer's sister, said Stephen was a careful historian and that ``My Old Kentucky Home'' was written after the funeral of their cousin, Judge John Rowan, owner of Federal Hill. The slave dirge haunted him. Little did he know the piece would become Kentucky's state song a century later.

The debate as to whether Foster actually ever visited Federal Hill or whether he wrote the song based on a description by his sister never ceases. Crinolined guides at Federal Hill say that, according to tradition, he sat down at a desk in the hall there and began composing it during a visit in 1852.

There's a square piano with mother-of-pearl keys in Bardstown's museum. Some claim Kentucky's beloved song was composed on it. It could be true. Charlotte Foster wrote in her diary that the piano was indeed at Federal Hill.

She also wrote that her brother deserved the title of America's greatest troubadour. He heard music everywhere: in Bardstown, in his native Pittsburgh, in inhospitable New York, where he died with a scrap of paper in his pocket that had ``Dear Friends and Gentle People'' scrawled on it in a shaky hand. Was it yet another idea for a song?

Federal Hill, once a 2,000-acre plantation, now has only 200 acres, but the slave cemetery is still there, on the hill by the golf course.

Since festival performances are evening events (except for the Saturday matinees), you'll need something to do during the day. I recommend visiting the Talbott Inn, where Daniel Boone ate roast beef and fried potatoes, where Lewis and Clark rested before pushing westward, and where Abraham Lincoln housed his family while he fought eviction from his farm. (He lost and moved to Illinois.)

Children will be fascinated by 100,000 toy soldiers, the largest private collection in the world. And kings and queens along with the great and near-great have dishes named for them here. Queen Marie of Romania went to Federal Hill to be photographed leaning against the piano on which, she believed, her favorite American song, ``Beautiful Dreamer,'' had been composed. As near as many of us will get to royalty is the ``Chicken Sandwich Queen Marie'' on the Talbott Inn menu.

Practical information

For more information, contact the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission, PO Box 867, Bardstown, KY, 40004; or call (502) 348-4877. Festival tickets cost $8 ($4 for children); for reservations call (800) 626-1563; or inside Kentucky, (800) 348-5971.

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