Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music," was the preeminent songwriter in the United States in the nineteenth century. His songs, such as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Black Joe," "Beautiful Dreamer," and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," remain popular over 150 years after their composition. Rather than exploit the subjects of his early music and lyrics, Foster insisted that they be treated with sympathy and respect.
Stephen Collins Foster, the ninth of William B. and Eliza T. Foster's ten children (plus a son, also named Stephen Foster, fathered by William before the marriage and later raised as their oldest child), was born July 4, 1826, in a white cottage high on the hillside above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The tenth child died as an infant, leaving Stephen as the "baby" of the family to be indulged by older brothers and sisters. This middle-class family would eventually become near destitute after William B. Foster's fall into alcoholism.
Foster's life has become part of American legend. He expressed a distaste for rote learning and recitation, but was an avid reader and eventually became a literate, well-educated person by the standards of his time. As a young boy, Stephen evinced more interest in music than in other subjects. As the child of a middle-class family in an era before tax-supported public education, he variously was privately tutored, then schooled at private academies in Pittsburgh and in north-central Pennsylvania.
Foster's education included one month at college but little formal music training. Despite this, he published several songs before the age of twenty. Stephen was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years. He probably received some formal musical training from a German immigrant, Henry Kleber (1816-1897), and from Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who immigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, and was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. The latter was an entertainer—a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Henry Kleber, was an accomplished and versatile musician who eventually exerted a major influence on the city of Pittsburgh's musical expansion as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.
These two very different musical worlds created a tension for the teenage Foster. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best works.
As a teen, Foster enjoyed the friendship of young men and women from some of Pittsburgh's most prosperous and respectable families. Stephen, his brother Morrison, and his close friend, Charles Shiras, were all members of an all-male secret club called Knights of the S.T. [probably Square Table] that met twice weekly at the Fosters' home. One of their principal activities was singing, with Stephen acting first as song leader and then composer. Some of his earliest songs, perhaps including "Oh! Susanna," were composed for the group. His first published song, "Open Thy Lattice Love," appeared from a Philadelphia music publisher when Stephen was only 18.
In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first hit songs, among them "Oh! Susanna." It would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the hit song "Nelly Was a Lady," made famous by the Christy Minstrels.
That year, he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River," 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife, Jane McDowall. Although many of his songs held Southern themes, Foster only visited the South once on a river-boat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans, in 1852, on his honeymoon. He also had visited Ohio River towns in Kentucky as a child.
Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.
Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered a pioneer in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Consequently, due in part to the poor provisions for music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster saw very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, paying Foster nothing. For "Oh, Susanna," he received $100.
While still an amateur songwriter, Foster realized that the minstrel stage was the key to securing an audience for his songs. At first, he circulated manuscript copies among various minstrel troupes. After "Oh! Susanna" became a national hit following its performance by the Christy Minstrels in 1848, the song was widely pirated by more than two-dozen music publishing firms, who earned tens of thousands of dollars from sheet music sales. Yet, as stated above, Foster received a mere $100 from a single firm in Cincinnati. In that regard, "Oh! Susanna" was a financial failure for Foster, but he learned two valuable lessons: One, his potential to earn significant sums from songwriting and, two, the need to protect his artistic property. During 1848 and 1849, eight more of his minstrel songs were published, including "Uncle Ned," and "Nelly Was a Lady." Determined to make a full-time career of writing songs, Foster left his bookkeeping job in Cincinnati and returned to Pittsburgh in late 1849 or early 1850. On December 3, 1849, he signed a contract with the New York music publisher, Firth, Pond, & Co., thus officially beginning his professional career.
At first, Foster wrote ballads and dances for parlor singers and pianists as well as minstrel songs, often referred to as "Ethiopian" songs, for professional theatrical performers. The minstrel songs, like the ballads, had simple melodies and accompaniments, but their texts, written in dialect, depicted African-American slaves as simple, good-natured creatures. Some of his earliest minstrel texts even had crude caricatures and terms, that is, "Away Down Souf" (1848) and one verse that was later deleted form "Oh! Susanna."
But as Foster grew more ambivalent about the earlier "Ethiopian" songs, he began offering a different image, that of the black as a human being experiencing pain, love, joy, even nostalgia. "Nelly Was a Lady" (1849) is an eloquent lament of a slave for his loved one who has died, apparently the first song written by a white composer for the white audience of the minstrel shows that portrays a black man and woman as loving husband and wife, and insists on calling the woman a "lady," which was a term reserved for well-born white women. "Angelina Baker" (1851) similarly laments a slave who has been sent away by "old Massa." "Ring, Ring de Banjo!" (1851), despite its apparent surface of frivolity, has the slave/singer leaving the plantation "while the ribber's running high," a reference to escaping while the bloodhounds could not pick up his scent, and traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad. "Old Folks at Home" (1851), which was to become the most popular of all Foster's songs, conveys a sentiment that had almost universal appeal—yearning for lost home, youth, family, and happiness. Increasingly, the "Ethiopian" songs used the same musical style that Foster created for his parlor ballads.
Foster informed E.P. Christy that he was trying to reform minstrelsy by writing texts suitable to refined taste, instead of "trashy and really offensive words," and that certain of his songs should be performed in a pathetic, not a comic style. (By "pathetic," Foster meant "to engender compassion.") Foster also began using the term "plantation song" for his new compositions, many of which were gentle and nostalgic in text with music that hinted at Irish or Italian ancestry. Soon he dropped dialect altogether from his texts and eventually referred to his songs as "American melodies." The verse-chorus structure of these songs made them suitable for both the minstrel stage and the parlor. In addition to "Old Folks at Home," some of Foster's characteristic songs of this type from the early 1850s are:
Farewell, My Lilly Dear (1851) My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night (1853) Old Dog Tray (1853) Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair (1854)
During this period, Foster also turned his hand to instrumental music aimed very specifically for the parlor. The Social Orchestra, published in 1854 by Firth, Pond, & Co., was a compendium of 73 arrangements for flute, violin, piano, and other instruments. The selections ranged from the operatic, including thirteen tunes by Donizetti, and the classical, Jullien, Abt, Mozart, and Schubert, and finally to popular airs, including his own. The collection was ideal for informal home entertainment. The arrangements lent themselves to various combinations and numbers of instruments and included many tunes for dancing, a favorite parlor pastime. The collection proved to be very popular, but for Foster it was not a money-maker. He received a flat fee of only $150 from the publisher, which may explain why this was his only venture into instrumental arranging. Foster occasionally composed piano pieces, but song writing was his forte, and he returned to it once the Social Orchestra was completed.
Foster's Hard Times Come Again No More, published in early 1855, was both a reflection of recent events in his personal life and a portent of things to come. He and Jane separated for a time in 1853, and his close friend, Charles Shiras, died during that same period. During 1855, both his parents died. His song output diminished, only four new songs in that year, and his debts increased. He was forced to draw advances from his publishers, then found himself unable to supply the new new songs he had promised them.
As the Civil War approached, Foster's once-promising songwriting career seemed to be doomed. His contracts with his publisher had ended, and he had sold all future rights to his songs to pay his debts. Possibly in an effort to revive his popularity, Foster reverted to writing plantation melodies. Of the four he wrote in 1860, one is among his most memorable (and infamous) compositions, "Old Black Joe." Belying the racial condescension its title epitomizes in the Civil Rights era, "Old Black Joe" comes closest of all of Foster's famous songs to the African-American spiritual, and it approaches that tradition with sympathy and respect. It is like a secular hymn, praising the noble spirit of the laborer at the end of his life.
Another thread in the mythic fabric is that Foster dashed off perfect masterpieces in a flash of inspiration, songs expressing the sentiment of American ante-bellum South. Yet, aside from these absences, visits to the family in Ohio, and until he went to New York for good in 1860, Foster spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting, keeping a thick sketchbook to draft ideas for song lyrics and melodies. As a professional songwriter of now unparalleled skill and technique—not an untutored musical genius—he had made it his business to study the various music and poetic styles circulating in the immigrant populations of the new United States. His intention was to write the people's music, using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups. Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher. His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics.
Foster moved to [[[New York City]] in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes began to decline, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. He began working with George Cooper early in 1863, whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The American Civil War helped ruin the commercial market for newly written music.
Rather than writing nostalgically for an ante bellum South (it was current and rich in material for him), or trivializing the hardships of slavery, Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs. He showed their capabilities to care for one another, and conveyed a sense that all people, regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class, shared the same longings and needs for family and home. He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them. In his own words, he sought to "build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster was a man with a mission, to reform black-face minstrelsy, then the most pervasive and powerful force in American popular culture.
It is possible that Foster's sense of mission was aided and encouraged by his boyhood friend and artistic collaborator, Charles Shiras. Pittsburgh was a center for abolitionist activities in Pennsylvania, and Shiras was a leader of the movement. Inspired by local appearances by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Shiras launched a crusading abolitionist newspaper, and subsequently published a volume of anti-slavery and anti-capitalist verse. He and Stephen wrote at least one song together, and a stage work that was performed but never published and is now lost.
Though another thread of the myth romantically portrays Stephen Foster as such a pure artist that he had no business sense and squandered all his wealth, he in fact kept his own account books, documenting down to the penny how much his publishers paid him for each song, and he calculated his probable future earnings on each piece. His contracts were written out in his own hand; they are the earliest ones we know of between American music publishers and individual songwriters.
In reality, Foster was not an idle street musician without direction in his life; he was a pioneer. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after his death; radio, 66 years); no system of publishers and agents vying to sell new songs; no "performing rights" fees from restaurant singers or minstrels or theater musicians or concert recitalists; no way of earning money except through a 5-to-10 percent royalty on sheet music sales of his own editions by his original publisher, or through the outright purchase of a song by a publisher. There was no way to know whether or not he was being paid for all the copies his publisher sold, and there were no attorneys specializing in authors' rights. Copyright law protected far less than it does today; Foster earned nothing for other arrangers' settings of his songs, broadside printings of his lyrics, or for other publishers' editions of his music. In today's music industry, he would have been worth millions of dollars a year.
Stephen Foster died on January 13, 1864, at the age of 37. He had been impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery, Manhattan, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (possessing exactly $.38 USD when he died). In his pocket was a scrap of paper with only the enigmatic, "dear friends and gentle hearts," written on it. His brother, Henry, described the accident in the New York theater-district hotel that led to his death. Confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital, and in that era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days.
Florida named a public park, the Stephen Foster State Park in his honor.
Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Park in Pennsylvania is named in his honor as well.
In Alms Park in Cincinnati, overlooking the Ohio River, there is a seated statue of Stephen Foster.
He is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of his best loved works, "Beautiful Dreamer" would be published shortly after his death.
His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.
Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburgh campus with the Stephen Foster Memorial, as well as a museum in his honor.
Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1970.
Eighteen of Foster's compositions were recorded and released on the "Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster" collection. Among the artists that are featured on the album are John Prine, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples, and Suzy Bogguss. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.
"I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow. 'My Old Kentucky Home' makes you think so, at any rate. Something there suggests close acquaintance with my people…" (W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues, 1941).
All links retrieved January 3, 2020.
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