Recently as I sat in my home office working on a project, I heard Mr. Potter offer George Bailey a job.

My wife was watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I went out to take a quick look and saw George almost accept Potter’s offer. He thought better of it, however, and called Potter “a scurvy little spider.”

Having seen the film many times, I gave George Bailey a thumbs up and went back to my office.

I was working on an article about Stephen Foster Day. As I wrote, my thoughts returned to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One of Foster’s songs, “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” owes its enduring popularity to a situation not unlike that of James Stewart’s film.

In the film’s case, it was a clerical error that led to the movie’s fame. In Foster’s case, it was a rise in broadcast fees.

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” released in 1946, was a flop at the box office, losing around $525,000. Copyright law at the time protected the film for 28 years. At the end of that period, the copyright could be renewed, protecting it for another 28 years.


In 1974, National Telefilm Associates, the firm that owned the rights to the movie, forgot to file for a renewal of the copyright. The result was that “It’s a Wonderful Life” fell into the public domain, meaning anyone could show the film for free.

Across the nation, local TV stations gobbled up the opportunity for some free Christmas programming and showed the film repeatedly each Christmas season. This heavy exposure, which the movie would not have gotten otherwise (it was an old, black-and-white flop of a film), introduced “It’s a Wonderful Life” to a new generation, as well as reintroducing it to an older one. New viewers fell in love with it; older viewers either rekindled a love or, more likely, had a change of heart.

“I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” was written back in 1854. It’s believed that Foster wrote it for his estranged wife, Jane McDowell, hoping to win her back. Her nickname was Jennie, which was the original name in the song. Foster’s publisher, however, thought that Jeanie sounded better, so changed the name.

The song, a sheet music best-seller, didn’t win Jennie back, at least not permanently. And as time went on, the song faded from popularity.

Jump ahead to 1941. ASCAP increased the licensing fees broadcasters had to pay to air their songs. In protest, NBC and CBS radio stations stopped playing ASCAP songs. For ten months, they played public domain music or songs owned by ASCAP’s rival, BMI.

Bing Crosby had recorded “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” in 1940, and it got tons of airplay during the boycott. This refreshed the nation’s love for Foster’s heartfelt tune.

As I wrote about Stephen Foster, I could hear James Stewart in the other room, the two of them having more in common than they realized.

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